Sep 24,  2018

Water lentils: Parabel’s tiny plants with huge potential, LENTEIN’s disruptive promise

There is much debate in the food industry that centers on the challenges that a fast-growing global population that is expected to hit 10 billion by 2050 present. How will we feed everyone? How will climate change impact on agriculture? What crops and food commodities are the most sustainable? These are some of the big questions that the food industry is currently facing. And water lentils, an innovative protein source, is one of the newest and exciting plant proteins that could hold the answer, according to Parabel USA.

Considered to be one of the most sustainable crops out there, water lentils, otherwise known as Lemnoideae, have a unique selling point when it comes to sustainability and Parabel pinpoints this to a journey of less than 30 minutes – from farm-to-fork.

This rapidly growing aquatic plant thrives in open water and has such a high turnover rate (water lentils are extremely high yielding), they can be harvested every day and throughout the year. And the flowering aquatic plants which float on or just beneath the surface of still or slow-moving bodies of freshwater and wetlands, are the essence of an environmentally-friendly crop with a protein-dense profile.

Last month, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a GRAS No Objection Letter for Parabel USA’s LENTEIN plant protein.

The protein-rich and nutrient dense whole plant solves supply issues for the food industry looking for healthy and sustainable alternatives to conventional ingredients. The high yielding water lentil doubles its biomass in 24-36 hours. The ingredient is labeled LENTEIN Complete (whole Lemnaceae protein powder).

The protein in LENTEIN is similar to that of an animal protein which is “unheard of in the plant protein category.” LENTEIN contains levels of essential amino acids and branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) that are comparable to whey, higher than other plant proteins including soy and has a protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) of 0.93.

The ingredient contains other macro and micronutrients notably omega 3 fatty acids, lutein, dietary fibers and is free of food allergens.

Speaking to FoodIngredientsFirst, Parabel’s Vice President of Marketing, Cecilia Wittbjer, talks about the market opportunities for the tiny plants with huge potential and how the company is expanding its own water lentils production to keep pace with the expected demand for LENTEIN.

“Planet Earth is going to have 10 billion inhabitants in 2050, so we have to look into unconventional ways of feeding ourselves and growing our foods. Agriculture is already adapting to hydroponics as a way of limiting the use of freshwater, 70 percent of which is currently being used for agriculture,” she explains.

Parabel grows the water lentils in hydroponic ponds in Florida where the water gets recycled to 98 percent and because this crop doubles itself in 24 to 36 hours the company harvests every day which means the yield of food per acre is higher than any other land-based crop.

“The system is nutrified, but this is also recycled together with the water, keeping nutrient use to a minimum with nothing leaching into nearby areas,” continues Wittbjer. “In Florida, the precipitation is quite equal to trans-evaporation, making the crop close to water neutral.”

“With a process that takes the plant from farm-to-table in less than 30 minutes, we believe that we are also close to carbon neutral – although this would have to be validated independently.”

Being issued the GRAS no objection letter is highly significant for Parabel, explains Wittbjer, because it validates the water lentil as a food not just in the US, but also all other countries that recognize the FDA as their standard.

“As we are a global company this opens up new markets for us. In addition, it helps our customers – at least the larger multinational companies – who need this as a first step to formulating a new product.”

Parabel's second farm – due to open early next year – and a third is on the way
One of the key challenges to growing the water lentils is achieving the desired nutritional profile and keeping pace with the speed of cultivation, according to Wittbjer.

“Our large farms are feeding our process building with water lentils and processing it into 300 tons of protein for our existing plant and up to 3,000 tons in our new facility part of which will be open first quarter 2019,” continues Wittbjer.

Lemnaceae is the smallest flowering plant that flowers, fruits and seeds. Being a nutritional powerhouse, it had to adapt itself to cloning as a favored way of reproducing because so many animals were grazing on it. The result is that it grew faster than any other land-based crop. Coupled with the fact that we can nutrify the water to maximize nutrition it means that the water and carbon use per kg of protein is low.”

“The expectation is to open part of the 3,000-ton farm at the beginning of 2019 and continue to build out as we go through the year.”

Because Parabel is expecting further global demand, it’s already planning a third farm quite close to where the existing two farms are located near Vero Beach in Florida. The farms are easily scalable to match demand to supply and every farm takes three weeks from seeding to harvest so production can be ramped up quite quickly.

“Florida farmers have been very welcome to us as they have been looking for a replacement crop since the orange groves have been beset by ‘citrus greening’,” claims Wittbjer.

Applications for LENTEIN and the future of plant proteins
As the plant-based protein category is growing with double-digits every year, companies need to find solutions for applications that traditionally were containing animal proteins. The dialogue has always been that you need to mix plant-based ingredients to get a "complete protein" offering, according to Wittbjer.

LENTEIN imparts a vibrant green color to the application and keeps its color through different temperatures.

“According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a complete protein is one with an Amino Acid Score over 1.0 and LENTEIN has 1.02. This is similar to whey protein at 1.05.”

“By this definition, LENTEIN is a complete protein compared to the others that are below 1.0. The protein quality also has to do with the digestibility – and LENTEIN ‘s digestibility is 91 – which together with the amino acid score of 1.02 gives a PDCAAS score of 0.93. Of course, LENTEIN contains other valuable macro and micronutrients such as omega 3 ALA, lutein, vitamins and minerals.”

Wittbjer notes that LENTEIN is easy to formulate with and adds nutrition without bitterness.

“It has a green color and taste, but it’s easy to go around especially for applications where the green color is a plus. It is heat stable which is useful for pasta and noodles for example and the shelf life stability is 24 months which several customers have thought a big plus. It also has the added benefit of being free of food allergens.”

Parabel says LENTEIN is obviously a big hit with beverages but also has major potential for other applications. The FDA also noted that LENTEIN could be considered as a color additive in future applications.

“Green protein is used in bakery and other foods in Asia, but in Europe and the US, the green color is very popular in beverages. LENTEIN is dispersible in drinks, so that adds to the attraction.”

“LENTEIN’s heat stability means that it’s useful for foods such as pasta and noodles. They retain a vibrant green color even after cooking, so it’s easier to use than spinach, for example. At the moment, we don’t need to be an additive as we promote so many other nutritional benefits on top of the green color.”

What’s next for Parabel’s LENTEIN and cultivating water lentils?
With a third production site in Florida on the horizon and the global demand in the plant-based protein category shooting up all of the time, this protein-rich and nutrient dense whole plant solves supply issues for the food industry looking for healthy and sustainable alternatives to conventional ingredients.

And the FDA progress means a lot for the more conventional food industry.

As Wittbjer puts it: “We believe that LENTEIN is groundbreaking in that it’s a plant protein similar to an animal protein in amino acid profile and that is not a niche crop. We can supply as much product as any other common plant protein to a similar price. If you add the fact that it’s free of common food allergens and the taste is mild and sweet – it’s something that most protein formulators are interested in.”

Looking at the expectation towards 2050, the plant-based protein ingredients market is taking market share from animal protein ingredients and the soy protein share of that market is diminishing, albeit from a very strong position.

“Globally, the urbanization and the rising middle-class mean that more people are eating processed foods. Dairy, soy and gluten-free product launches are trending. We believe that there’s ample opportunity for novel plant proteins going forward and that LENTEIN is part of that trend,” she concludes.

By Gaynor Selby

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