Smart Protein: Barilla, AB InBev, Thai Union et al. collaborate on EU-funded novel protein project

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT

The project aims to upcycle pasta residues, bread crusts, spent yeast, and malting rootlets into protein-rich foods for human consumption ©GettyImages/SeventyFour
The project aims to upcycle pasta residues, bread crusts, spent yeast, and malting rootlets into protein-rich foods for human consumption ©GettyImages/SeventyFour

Related tags: alternative protein, novel protein, Horizon 2020

Pasta residues, bread crusts, and brewer’s spent yeast are the focus of a new project funded by the European Union, which sees 33 players collaborate to develop novel proteins from industry by-products.

Thirty-three industry partners from industry, research and academia, across 21 European countries, are taking part in the Smart Protein project.

Big names include Barilla, AB InBev, Thai Union, ProVeg International, Fraunhofer, the Good Food Institute (GFI), and the University of Copenhagen. The project will be led by the School of Food and Nutritional Sciences at the University College Cork, Ireland, and is set to kick off in January 2020.

The European Union is providing €8.2m of the total €9.6m budget under the Horizon 2020 scheme. Smart Protein will run for four years, with first products excepted to reach market around 2025.

Upcycling by-products for food

The project centres around by-products produced during the manufacture of pasta, bread, and beer. These include pasta residues, bread crusts, spent yeast, and malting rootlets, which are traditionally wasted or used in animal feed.

The Smart Protein project aims to upcycle these ingredients into novel, microbial biomass proteins, for use in plant-based meats, fish, seafood, cheese, infant formula and other dairy products, as well as baked foods.

Other novel protein products will also be developed from plants, such as fava beans, lentils, chickpeas, and quinoa. Researchers will investigate cost-effective protein extraction, protein chemistry, polymeric structure, physiochemical behaviour, and protein-protein interaction in order to improve their structure, taste, and flavour for food applications.

“These innovative techniques and processes have not been deployed on a project of this type and scale before, and the potential positive impact for the planet cannot be underestimated,”​ said Verena Wiederkehr, international head of food industry & retail for ProVeg International.

“By upcycling by-products and residues to produce edible protein for human consumption, we are taking huge strides towards a much-needed circular economy that can truly feed our rapidly-growing population.”

Upcycling waste ingredients to develop value-added, protein-rich foods is not new to the food scene. Entrepreneurs have been pioneering the category in recent years, including start-ups such as Planetarians’ upcycled defatted sunflower seeds​ and Rise Products’ barley flour made from brewer’s spent grain​. And just last month, Barilla put out a call for innovative circular food economy solutions that use upcycled product and ingredients​.

The EU’s sizeable investment in the Smart Protein project marks an advancement towards a common goal of producing ‘sustainable, nutritious, and cost-effective’ protein-rich foods.

Futureproofing the food system

According to Smart Protein lead coordinator and senior research officer at the University of Cork, Dr Emanuele Zannini, the project will rethink the value chain with the environment in mind. “With the Smart Protein project, we are reconsidering the entire protein value chain from production to consumption in terms of both productive and environmental performance.

“We are also targeting soil-health restoration through organic regenerative agriculture practices that are able to shift from carbon-source to carbon-sink agriculture, which is more resilient to the effects of climate change and help farmers’ long-term financial futures.” ​ 

Indeed, environmental drivers – such as climate change and environmental degradation – are well and truly guiding the initiative, with food security and public health also key concerns for Smart Protein stakeholders.

Richard Parr, managing director of GFI Europe, encouraged all players to ‘rally’ around the cause for exactly those reasons. “If we’re realistic about the importance of this work for our planet and all its inhabitants, we ultimately need to invest billions, not millions, of euros into alternative proteins. Governments, NGOs, and academics should all rally around this cause.

“[This] announcement is a great start and shows that the European Commission is leading the world into a more resilient, creative approach to food security. Smart Protein’s €9.6 million research effort is critical—and, hopefully, it’s just the start.”

The MD believes there is an opportunity for Europe to go further in this space. By accelerating the development of plant-based and cultivated meat, Europe can lead the fight across climate change, biodiversity loss, antimicrobial resistance, animal welfare, food security, and food safety.”

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