Grass is greener for healthy, novel protein, say researchers

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/shuttertop
© GettyImages/shuttertop

Related tags Amino acid Protein

Cheap, plentiful and with an amino acid profile similar to eggs, grass could be the next sustainable protein ingredient for food manufacturers, say Danish researchers, who have already created a grass protein bar.

Grown throughout Denmark as an animal-feed, along with other nitrogen-fixing crops such as alfalfa, grass is cheap and easy to produce and, according to the researchers, grass protein has a similar amino acid profile to other alternatives such as soy, eggs and whey.

The main benefit grass protein has over these more widely used proteins, however, is its considerably smaller impact on the environment and climate, say the scientists, led by head of research at DTU’s National Food Institute Professor Peter Ruhdal Jensen.

Food-grade grass protein could also fetch a per-kilo price that is around 10 times higher than its price tag as animal feed.

The extraction machine acts like "a huge juicer", said the researchers. © DTU

Furthermore, the dry fraction can still be sold as cow feed, which increases the overall profitability and sustainability of the concept​,” a statement by DTU said.

“The first step involved in extracting the protein is to feed the grass through a screw press, which acts as a huge juicer,” ​said DTU. “It separates the raw material into a fibrous, dry fraction and a protein-containing liquid fraction. A subsequent treatment of the liquid fraction separates out the protein, which is then dried into a powder."

Daniel Stender Nørgaard, a researcher involved in the project, told FoodNavigator no further details would be made public for the moment as they wished to publish the data in scientific journals and protect the processing details that can be patented. 

The grass protein project is part of BioValue, a research platform bringing together academics and businesses to develop sustainable technologies for transforming plant material into internationally competitive products such as protein, lignin and lysine.

BioValue has a budget of 160 million DKK (€21.5m) and offers businesses a 50:50 split in financing for knowledge-transfer.

Taste tests

Researchers at the National Food Institute used the grass protein to produce several products, including a protein bar with 10% protein and a flavour profile that does not cause people to “wrinkle their noses at the taste​”, it said.

They did this both by removing the grass taste and adding ingredients to mask the taste, such as peanut butter, honey, ginger and liquorice.

The next step will be to remove even more flavour and colour from the protein powder, and test its functionality in a wider range of food products. 

In the future, our protein could come from grass, insects and electricity…

Sign up for Protein Vision, a three-day event in Amsterdam in March 2018 packed with talks, roundtable discussions and networking opportunities, and meet the food industry players working to make that a reality.

Click here to book your spot. ​​​

Green biomass

Last year, researchers from the Universities of Aalborg and Aarhus developed a method​ to extract protein from red clover, clover grass, alfalfa and oilseed radish for animal feed.

The result – a dry organic matter with up to 46% of crude protein and a balanced amino acid profile comparable with soybeans – could be used to close the gap between the demand and currently insufficient supply for organic animal feed.

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