Leveraging Legumes: The search for the Ideal Protein Alternative

Of all the chatter happening across the food and beverage industry these days, two topics seem to drown out all the rest.

Better-for-you (nutrition) and Plant-based.

Despite the impressive growth of each segment in its own right, the not-so-secret truth is how important they are to each other.

While many consumers are looking to reduce their consumption of animal-based products, they don’t want to sacrifice the nutritional benefits said products provide, primarily protein.

According to Innova’s 2022 Health & Nutrition Survey, of the changes consumers made to their  diets over the past year, 15% have added more protein to their diets (second only to reducing sugar by 18%). This number may continue to grow, considering in that same survey, 83% of consumers showed interest in having protein as a functional ingredient in their food and beverage.

In the quest for the ideal protein alternative, developers have turned to a growing number of protein-packed legumes for the answer.

legumes and cheese

Pea is for Protein

In recent years, pea protein has gone from relatively unknown to a leader in the plant-based protein space, replacing soy as the go-to in the minds of many consumers.

When simply looking at the Protein Digestibility-Corrected Amino-Acid Score (PDCAAS), a measurement on a scale of 0-1 of the human body’s ability to absorb and digest protein from a given food, soy is easily the most complete plant-based protein with a score ranging from 0.91-1.0.  

Yet, it continues to decrease in popularity for a variety of reasons. Most notably, organisations like the US FDA (Food & Drug Administration) are now labelling it as a major food allergen to avoid.

Conversely, with a higher PDCAAS score (0.69-0.89) than other alternatives, a robust amino acid profile and little to no allergens, pea protein has mostly taken its place.


This is best illustrated by looking at the percentage of new product launches containing each of these ingredients. While soy protein isolate declined from 17% of all launches in 2018 to 12% in 2022, pea protein grew the most, from 11% in 2018 to 16% in 2022 total protein (the most of any plant-based protein during that span).

It is now the leading protein used in meat substitutes, and with research suggesting that it is on par with whey in promoting muscle growth and performance, it has become a key ingredient in many sports nutrition products (shakes, bars, etc.).

Still, with all of the positives, it, too, can pose potential pitfalls for developers.

More Pea More Problems?

When trying to match the nutrition profile of animal-based analogues, developers are often forced to increase the amount of pea protein used in their projects.

However, this usually introduces unwanted side effects regarding taste and texture.

Pea proteins have a tendency to create green, beany, and bitter off-notes that become more pronounced the higher your percentage of protein goes. 

When it comes to texture, most traditional pea proteins aren’t the most soluble and can add a gritty or grainy texture. 

Challenges like these can become more pronounced when working to create authentic plant-based dairy products that have decidedly distinct taste and texture expectations.

This is one of the reasons companies are investing in the development of a broader range of legume proteins to address growing consumer needs.

plant-based cheese

Leveraging other Legumes: Chickpea & Fava

Among the pea alternatives to gain attention and investment, the two most promising are chickpea and fava.

Though these options may have slightly lower PDCAAS scores than Pea (Chickpea 0.52, Fava 0.60), what they lack in protein, they make up for in their functionality.

These other legumes can provide solubility, gelling, and emulsification capabilities at least as good as pea, but also offer generally smoother and creamier textures. 

This makes them perfect candidates for plant-based cheeses, which have historically struggled to match the unique texture qualities of animal-based dairy.

Moreover, chickpea and fava are milder and more neutral in taste, resulting in less distracting off-notes, reducing the need for intense masking agents in products like Alt milk & yoghurts, for other applications like cheese they often add a savoury note that can be built on top off adding depth of flavour.         

chickpea and fava

What Matters Most? How to Make Protein Taste Good

The reality is any one of these legume-derived proteins could be the right choice for your product and your consumers.

Yet, regardless of what you choose, the success of your product will always come down to taste.

In the plant-based arena, things move fast. You need collaborators who aren’t just up to date on the newest ingredients but have their finger on the pulse of what’s next.

At Edlong, we work with our peers and partners to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each of these plant-based ingredients. 

Whether it’s masking off-notes, helping with reformulation to improve texture, or adding one of our characterising flavours for an authentic taste experience, we’ll help your plant-based product break through the noise and stand out to your consumers.

About the Author: Emily Sheehan, Applications Manager, EMEA

Hi! I’m Emily Sheehan. I’m the Applications Manager, EMEA at Edlong, and my job is rooted in creating exciting new possibilities for our people and processes. It’s inspiring to reflect on how much Edlong has achieved and even more amazing to be involved in such thoughtful innovation. We enjoy pushing boundaries in food and flavour, and we welcome everyone in the food industry to join us. If you’re in need of expertise or inspiration, I’d love to collaborate and help you design flavour solutions that resonate with consumers!

Topics: Plant-Based
Resource Type: Article
Resource Region: EULATAMUS


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