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The Ingredients of Success
“Good food depends almost entirely on good ingredients.”
– Alice Waters
The rise in popularity of alternative proteins might be a recent phenomenon, but these products originally came into existence a long time ago. The earliest evidence of plant-based ‘meat’ alternatives dates all the way back to the year 965 – over a millennium ago!1 The taste, texture, and product offerings in the category have evolved drastically over the years, but the underlying ingredients have remained remarkably similar. Seitan made from wheat has given way to Textured Wheat Protein, and tofu and tempeh made from soy were the predecessors of Textured Soy Flakes or Soy Protein Concentrate. The name and formats may have evolved but the main raw materials are unchanged – soy and wheat. These ingredients have always been a part of the conventional diet and now they are the key focus in the plant-based protein context as well. The only exception is yellow pea, which has since entered the top ingredients category as a novel source of plant-based protein.
When it comes to an ingredient’s success, four attributes are key: functionality, availability, efficiency, and nutrition. Decision-makers initially explore functionality: can this ingredient be used in the desired format to create the desired product? If the answer is no, then the remaining parameters become irrelevant. Once the functionality is established, availability comes next: is this ingredient available at scale to meet current and future demand? Efficiency follows: is the ingredient efficient when compared to alternatives? Nutrition is the final attribute – what nutritional benefits does it offer? While additional factors are considered, these four are the essential enablers for an ingredient to see broad applicability and adoption. Thus, the success of soy, wheat, and pea protein can be credited to their performance in the attributes of functionality, availability, efficiency, and nutrition. However, even among these top three contenders, soy remains miles ahead of the others. Let’s explore what makes soy so special and its relative superiority over other ingredients.
Is It Functional?
Functionality is a key parameter, encompassing numerous factors such as water and oil holding capacity, gelation, emulsification ability, protein solubility, and foaming capacity among others. The combination of these factors based on application determines the functionality of each ingredient. Given that the raw ingredient is subjected to a chain of processes to create the final textured protein product, these factors are essential in establishing whether the desired taste and texture can be obtained from the ingredient. Here is a relative comparison:
Water holding capacity (‘WHC’) is the ability of a substance to retain water. Soy has the highest WHC among the three, making it an excellent ingredient for moisture retention in baked goods. However, when it comes to protein isolates, soy protein isolate has the lowest water-holding capacity at 2.4 gH2O/g of the isolate as compared to 3.5 gH2O/g for pea protein isolate and 3.8 gH2O/g for wheat protein isolate2. Additionally, the moisture content in wheat leads to high viscosity which can affect the extrusion process. Thus, wheat is often used in combination with soy or pea protein to achieve the right product texture3.
Oil holding capacity (‘OHC’) is the ability of a substance to hold oil. Soy has the highest OHC of 5.4 (g of oil/g of soy protein isolate) among the three, making it a popular ingredient in meat substitutes and emulsions. Pea protein isolates and wheat protein isolates have moderate OHC of 1.5 g of oil/g and 1.6 g of oil/g respectively.
Gelation is the process of forming a gel-like substance. A good measure of gelation is the Least Gelation Concentration (‘LGC’) which marks the point of protein concentration when the protein solution forms a gel-like substance. Soy has the highest gelation (or the lowest LGC of 10%), making it an excellent ingredient for the production of tofu, yogurt, and other gell-based products. Comparatively, pea has a gelation of 16% and wheat at 8%.
Emulsification capacity is the ability of a substance to form and stabilize an emulsion. Soy protein isolate has the highest emulsification capacity among the ingredients at 81% followed by 62% for pea protein isolate and 58% for wheat protein isolate.
Protein solubility is the ability of a substance to dissolve in water. Soy, once again, has the highest protein solubility at 80% making it an excellent ingredient for protein fortification and beverage production. Pea on the other hand has a moderate protein solubility of 60% and wheat has the lowest at 43%.
Foaming capacity is the ability of a substance to form and stabilize foam. Breaking the trend, pea has the highest foaming capacity between 87-132%, making it an excellent ingredient for textured or foamed products. Soy protein tends to display a lower foaming capacity at 36% while wheat is moderate at 45%.
Taste and color of ingredients are also essential attributes of functionality. Soy and pea are both known to have a beany and earthy taste accompanied by a natural yellow/green color whereas wheat has the advantage of a better profile with its neutral taste and color4.
Verdict: Soy protein comes out as the most functional ingredient which supports its popularity in plant-based products.
Is It Available?
With the global population reaching 8 billion last year, the importance of easily available and widely abundant ingredients can hardly be overstated. Availability becomes an even more crucial factor given that alternative proteins are projected to capture 11%-22% of the market by 20355. Availability refers to the global supply of raw ingredients which can then be processed into various protein formats such as flour, concentrate, and isolate. These are the key ingredients used in formulating plant-based products.
When it comes to availability, wheat leads the pack. Wheat has a significantly higher global scale of production at 771 million metric tons (mmt), almost double that of soy at 372 mmt. In contrast, pea production stands at a meager 12 mmt6. The wide gap between soy and peas further demonstrates why soy is the superior ingredient. This was not always the case. From 2004 to 2014, the production of soy increased by a factor of 10. The main pushing factor behind this rapid increase was the increasing demand for meat and other animal products. Soy was the crop of choice for animal feed due to its high protein, amino acid, and energy content. It saw adoption from farmers because of the relative ease of growing it and the high-profit margins associated with it given its role in the animal product supply chain7.
From a resistance standpoint, all these crops are susceptible to weather changes, particularly extreme heat. Water supply is another constraining factor. For example, Brazil is the world’s largest producer of soy with Argentina ranked third on the list. Due to drought-like conditions in South America lasting through 2022 and into 2023, Argentinian soy production dipped to the lowest point ever in 20238. Similarly, sociopolitical factors can also impact availability. In the case of wheat, China, India, Russia, and the United States are the top producers in the world. Supply chain disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic severely hampered wheat supply in 2021 followed by further disruptions due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 20229.
The lack of a ‘dispensable’ supply of these ingredients is another key factor. For example, 76% of the soy currently produced in the world is used as feed for animals, 4% is used to create industrial products such as biodiesel and lubricants, and only the remaining 20% is converted into products such as tofu and soy milk for human consumption10. Thus, only a small amount of the world’s soy can be diverted to be used in the alternative protein space for direct human consumption while the majority is not designed for human consumption. This is part of a long-standing debate on feed versus food i.e., is it more prudent and efficient to use the agricultural output as feed for animals or for direct human consumption? Crops such as soy are grown specifically for the purpose of feeding animals. Much of the negative environmental impact associated with soy is because of its role in the animal agriculture industry. If the consumption of animal products declines, the need for growing soy for animal feed will also abate, providing an opportunity for the excess supply to be tweaked and utilized for direct human consumption.
Other ingredients have limitations too. For example, the global supply of chickpeas is at 16 mmt, potato is at 376 mmt (similar to soy), and rice is at 787 mmt11. Despite having a supply comparable to the more popular ingredients, these ingredients have not seen traction with their utilization in plant-based products due to a lackluster performance in other areas such as functionality, efficiency, and nutrition. And as wheat, potato, rice, pea, and chickpea are already widely consumed in other formats, it reduces the ‘dispensable’ supply of these ingredients. A report by the Good Food Institute (GFI) found that in order to meet the projected demand for plant-based products in 2030, the supply of soy protein isolate will have to be 3x its current value, and that of pea protein will have to be 10x the current supply12.
Verdict: Wheat dominates the availability parameter with almost twice the global supply compared to soy.
Is It Efficient?
To determine efficiency, we focus on following the raw ingredient through the entire value chain from production towards protein extraction, extrusion, and final preparation, with particular emphasis on product and side stream recovery, farming practices, and corresponding environmental impact. Several factors are considered, including:
The price per metric ton of the raw ingredient
The yield of the ingredient in kilograms per hectare
The protein content available in each kilogram of the raw ingredient
The optimization of by-products collected in the process
The subsidies received by the farmers growing the raw ingredient
The production of soybeans has been widely criticized for its negative environmental impact, as it can be responsible for deforestation and utilizes pesticides, which cause water and soil pollution through runoff. The growth and use of genetically modified (GMO) soybeans have also given consumers pause when it comes to their use as a major ingredient13. Wheat is easily and widely available and is grown in many countries, especially in Asia. However, wheat production can also have a negative impact on the environment, as it requires large amounts of water and can lead to soil erosion14. Pea protein is produced from yellow peas, which are primarily grown in Canada, France, and China. Pea production has a significantly lower environmental impact than soybean and wheat production, as it requires less water and pesticides15.
When we compare protein yield per hectare for these ingredients, soy once again eclipses pea and wheat. Soybean production yields approximately 1,033 kilograms of protein per hectare of land used (kg/ha), pea comes in second at 440 kg/ha of protein followed by wheat at 360 kg/ha of protein. Overall, pea has a more sustainable supply chain than soy and wheat, but the protein per hectare of soy is almost 2.3x that of pea and 2.9x that of wheat16. In addition, if an ingredient is too expensive to grow, harvest, process, package, and transport, it will increase the price of the final plant-based product. The fight for price parity in the alternative protein industry demands that we move away from expensive ingredients toward those that allow us to create end products at prices similar to those of conventional products.
It is essential to ensure that ingredients are functional and available while being efficient. Soy is relatively affordable, with prices ranging from US$ 312-618 per metric ton (mt)17 for the raw product and US$ 3,500-7,000/mt for the isolate. Even though wheat is cheaper than soy, when it comes to protein content, soy is almost twice as efficient as wheat. Similarly, pea prices fall at about US$ 136-504/mt18 for the whole grain but jump to US$ 5,750-6,110/mt for the isolate. These ingredients have seen ongoing price volatility over the past three years wherein prices more than doubled before seeing a 40% decline19 due to a combination of factors such as improved weather conditions in the northern hemisphere and the recovering market sentiment around the supply chain woes caused by the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
The economic advantages of soy may be credited in part to the fact that soy producers receive significant subsidies and government support during periods of natural disasters and economic crises. For example, soy producers based in the U.S. received an all-time high subsidy amount of US$ 3,447 million in 2002. The amounts have reduced significantly since then, to US$ 608 million in 202120. This number might feel small when looking at the scale of production of these ingredients, but it is worth noting that soy and wheat are two out of the three most subsidized commodities in the U.S. (the third is corn). Thus, this subsidy amount is still more than that received by other commodity farmers. On the downside, pea is not a major commodity21 which limits its eligibility for numerous government subsidies.
Verdict: Soy comes out on top with the highest protein and price efficiency.
Is It Nutritious?
Nutrition will always remain an important factor in selecting plant-based protein ingredients. It is a broad term that encompasses protein content, amino acid balance, micronutrient content, and allergenicity. Several methodologies have been established to measure the nutritional components such as the Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) developed in 1989 through a collaboration between the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO). The PDCAAS measure was further optimised in 2008 leading to the introduction of the Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIAAS) in its place which took other types of amino acids into consideration while calculating the score22. While DIAAS is the latest measure, PDCAAS retains broader adoption within the industry.
Soy comes close to being a complete protein, which means it contains all nine essential amino acids required by the human body. It is also an excellent source of nutrients such as iron, calcium, and vitamin B12. In addition, it is low in saturated fat and is cholesterol-free, making it an ideal choice for people who want to reduce their cholesterol levels, which are typically high in animal products. Further, soy has a PDCAAS of 0.98 and true digestibility of 97%. The closer the PDCAAS score is to 1, the closer it is considered to being an ideal protein23. Soy is the star ingredient with the amino acid composition and digestibility that is closest to animal meat. Wheat protein is not as rich in essential amino acids as soy protein. While it is also a good source of vital nutrients such as iron and vitamin B, wheat contains gluten, which is not suitable for people with gluten intolerance or celiac disease. Up to 7% of the global population is estimated to be gluten intolerant, which impacts the potential of wheat protein. It also has a comparatively lower PDCAAS of 0.49, making it the lowest-ranking ingredient on our list in terms of nutrition24.
Pea protein became popular due to its widespread use in plant-based meat products including Beyond Meat. With a PDCAAS of 0.84, pea protein comes closer to soy protein in terms of nutrition. Though not a complete protein as it lacks methionine, an essential amino acid, it can be combined with other plant-based proteins to make up for this deficiency. Similar to other ingredients, pea protein is rich in iron and contains fiber, which is beneficial for gut health and is missing in animal meat. It is also low in fat and cholesterol-free, making it a healthy choice.
Verdict: Soy has the most complete nutritional profile of the three ingredients, making it the superior and obvious choice.
Apart from soy, wheat, and pea protein, several challengers are emerging, with mung bean receiving the most attention. Mung beans are a great source of protein, containing up to 24% protein with a PDCAAS of 0.65. They are also a good source of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals, including folate, iron, magnesium, and potassium. The supply chain of mung beans is relatively stable and accessible, as they are grown in various regions of the world, including developing regions such as Asia, Africa, and South America25. With a protein yield of 300 kg/ha, mung beans come close to the protein yield of wheat. However, at a price point of US$ 6,000-9,000/mt for the isolate, mung beans are often a less attractive option than most other ingredients26. Still, its nutritional and supply chain benefits indicate that mung beans could emerge as a potential alternative to soy and pea protein.
Fava (or faba) beans, also known as broad beans, are another example of a nutritious and versatile plant-based ingredient. The supply chain of fava beans is relatively stable and accessible, as they are grown in many regions of the world, including Europe, Asia, and the Americas. However, fava beans are often considered a niche ingredient in the plant-based food industry, and their availability may be more limited compared to other protein sources. The global production of fava beans was at a paltry 5.9 mmt in 2021, less than 2% of soy production!27 Prices usually fall around US$ 1,050/mt for the whole grain, making it the most expensive ingredient on our list28. One of the challenges with fava beans is that they contain a naturally occurring compound called vicine, which could lead to a genetic condition called favism, which can cause symptoms such as anemia, fever, and abdominal pain. Further research and innovation around addressing the negative health impacts could see the expanded use of fava beans in plant-based products29.
Chickpeas are an increasingly popular ingredient in plant-based products due to their nutritional value, affordability, and availability. They offer a good source of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, with a PDCAAS of 0.76 ranking between wheat and pea30. With a global supply of 15 mmt, chickpeas are more widely available than peas and are also easy to grow and highly sustainable. Despite these benefits, a low protein per hectare yield of 200kg/ha may hold chickpeas back. However, given the widespread popularity of chickpeas in numerous cultural cuisines (Indian, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern) and among the vegetarian/vegan population, chickpeas are well-positioned as a great source of plant-based protein.
The Reign of Soy
In the near term, we can expect soy to reign supreme as no other ingredient provides a comparable mix of benefits. It’s not surprising that 83% of the top 25 plant-based companies (based on funding) utilize soy, followed by 46% listing wheat and 38% pea protein31. That being said, manufacturers have recognized the potential of pea protein and have invested in research and development (R&D) to improve the supply chain. Multinational ingredient producer Roquette announced its investment of US$ 14 million in an R&D center for pea and wheat protein and committed a further €40 million to expand the production capacity of its French pea protein production plant32. The table below highlights the relative advantages of soy when compared to other protein sources.
There is much work to do. Given the supply limitations, we can also expect to see more products combining these ingredients with others to achieve a blend of functionality, availability, efficiency, and nutrition. Beyond Meat’s use of a combination of peas, mung beans, fava beans, and brown rice as a protein source is an early indicator. It sets an example for utilizing the best of each ingredient and fusing it together to optimize protein production. The gap in the projected demand and supply of plant-based protein ingredients also indicates the need for further research, innovation, and optimization in scaling ingredient production required to support the projected size of the plant-based industry. The trifecta of soy, wheat, and pea has given the industry a good start as innovators explore alternative ingredients to create a better future.
History of Soy in China and Taiwan (2014)
Ma, K.K. (2022), Functional Performance of Plant Proteins
Wittek et. al. (2021), Comparison of Rheological Properties of Plant Proteins from Various Sources for Extrusion Applications
Roland (2016), Flavor Aspects of Pulse Ingredients
BCG-Blue Horizon, The Untapped Climate Opportunity in Alternative Proteins
Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Database
World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)
New York Times
Our World in Data
GFI, Anticipating 2030 Production Requirements
Sustainable Nutrition Initiative
Good Signal analysis based on FAO data
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
Major commodities refer to corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice.
Hertzler et. al. (2020), Plant Proteins: Assessing Their Nutritional Quality and Effects on Health and Physical Function
Hertzler et. al. (2020), Plant Proteins: Assessing Their Nutritional Quality and Effects on Health and Physical Function
Maningat et. al. (2022), Textured Wheat and Pea Proteins for Alternative Meat Applications
EFSA Panel on Nutrition
GFI, The Untapped Potential of Mung Beans for Alternative Proteins
Achouri et. al. (2020), Faba Beans: An Untapped Source of Quality Plant Proteins and Bioactives
Herreman (2020), Comprehensive Overview of the Quality of Plant and Animal Sourced Proteins
Based on Good Signal analysis of PitchBook data
Roquette Press Release