If you thought pea protein was weird, you might want to sit down for this. The next wave of alternative burgers could be made from hemp, mung beans or even crickets.
As the plant boom attracts consumers and investors, the pea -- the preferred protein source for companies like Beyond Meat Inc. -- is facing some challengers. Critics say the legume is not the nutritional powerhouse that proponents claim it is, while others say alternatives could offer better taste.
"Pea protein does have one weakness and that is that it's not actually nutritionally equivalent to the protein that's in dairy -- it's not even equivalent to the protein that's in soy," said Johann Tergesen, chief executive officer of Burcon NutraScience, which is opening a plant-protein facility in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Peas also have a strong "bean-like" taste along with a chalky texture, he said.
More Americans are being described as flexitarians, who buy both meat and alternatives, according to Meagan Nelson, an associate director at consumer researcher Nielsen. Veggie-burger sellers Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods Inc. have landed deals with the likes of Denny's Corp. and Burger King to take their products mainstream.
Analysts at Jefferies estimate the alt-meat market could rise to $240 billion over the next two decades. While peas have captured headlines, producers of other crops are eager to get in on the action.
Your next burger could end up being made from one of these burgeoning alternatives:
Canola is usually processed into vegetable oil or meal used in animal feed. But canola meal has a high protein content that can now make it attractive for human consumption as well.
Vancouver, B.C.-based Burcon NutraScience has two market-ready canola proteins that are high in amino acids, methionine and cysteine, which other proteins like pea are low in.
Other companies are also working on canola proteins, with Calgary-based Botaneco Inc. having recently received funding through the Canadian government.
Food makers are showing an interest in blending pea and canola protein together to reach a protein content comparable to milk.
Hemp seeds have all 10 essential amino acids and also have omega 3 and 6. Meal made from the seeds has a nutty taste and texture, similar to sunflower seeds and pine nuts. There are also no known allergens to hemp.
The seeds have been used as a food ingredient for years by companies like Winnipeg-based Manitoba Harvest. The crop is now hitting the mainstream with major North American grocery store chains, such as Walmart Inc., stocking hemp products on their shelves. In the US, commercial production for hemp was legalized in late 2018 after a decades-long ban because of the crop's association with marijuana.
Manitoba Harvest offers a range of food products including hemp as an ingredient in nutrition bars, smoothie mixes and milk products.
Fava beans are ahead of other proteins in some aspects. The pulse crop has a higher protein content than peas, which could make it a more desirable ingredient.
Companies can make a larger profit off of fava beans, which are also known as faba or broad beans, after processing because of the higher protein content, Michael Nickerson, research chair in protein quality and utilization at the University of Saskatchewan, said in a phone interview. At the same time, the beans are processed through similar techniques as peas, which would make it easy for some facilities to make the switch.
Mung beans have become popular among US plant-based companies, with Just Inc. casting it as a main ingredient in its alternative egg products. The mung "eggs" are popping up on menus for restaurants including Bareburger, Veggie Grill and Qdoba. Mung-bean flour is also used in pastas, plant-based meats and other foods.
Lentils are high in fiber and packed with B vitamins, magnesium, zinc and potassium. They also have a blander taste profile than peas.
They are "very similar to peas in terms of the protein content, but we're finding that when we make it into protein isolate it actually has better functionality than some of the pea-protein ingredients," Nickerson said.
Coffee and "Fruitein"
The pulp of cherries from coffee plants usually gets dumped into landfills. However, they can be processed into a flour that is high in protein and fiber. The gluten-free result can be used in bakery and pastry products, according to Henk Hoogenkamp, a plant-protein expert who works as an adviser and board member for several food companies. Protein can also be extracted from the seeds, shells and stems of the fruit, which work well in foods like breakfast bars, granolas and cereals.
Insects have been used in traditional Asian diets for centuries, but they are just now starting to catch on in Western menus. Insects are viable alternatives to traditional livestock production as they use little land and produce a fraction of the greenhouse gases generated by cattle.
Crickets are the main insect making it's way into recipes, with the ground-up bugs having little taste. The powder is a filling option and contains far more protein than wheat flour. It is being added to foods like sausages, cookies, muffins, tofu and ice cream. Last year, Loblaw Cos., Canada's largest grocer, even added cricket powder to its line of President's Choice products.