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Engineering R&D: Research's long and winding slog

October 1, 2010
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A decade after a Canadian firm developed a process to recover high-quality protein from a byproduct of vegetable-oil extraction, regulatory obstacles to commercialization have been overcome.

Because soy protein isolate is completely clear and tasteless in sports drinks and other acidic beverages, Burcon officials believe its commercial prospects are brighter than the outlook for canola-based protein, which is less well-known and in shorter supply than soybeans. Source: Burcon NutraScience.


Plant proteins are where the action is in human nutrition, particularly for health-conscious Americans and the growing middle classes in China, India and elsewhere. The inefficiency of livestock conversion of plant material to protein and the environmental issues posed by large-scale operations make meat and poultry dubious options for a growing world population, which is expected to reach 7 billion next year. More problematic from a business perspective, the volatile and escalating costs of animal proteins are forcing global food companies to look for viable alternatives. Protein ingredients will supply tomorrow’s human nutrition needs, and plant proteins will dominate, thanks to their lower costs.

Among the companies chasing plant protein’s brass ring is Burcon Nutrascience Corp., a Vancouver, BC-based firm with a pilot plant and R&D facilities in Winnipeg. The company was founded in 1999 and spent much of the last decade focusing on extraction processes and ingredient applications for canola protein isolates, eschewing chemicals for extraction and delivering highly nutritious protein. The first product, Puratein, was the focus of an Engineering R&D feature in the May 2001 edition of Food Engineering (“New technology isolates canola protein”). In a prescient remark, the firm’s then-vice president of engineering noted “there is a fair bit of work still to be done” to commercialize the process: Burcon’s canola protein isolate still has not been produced commercially, though a letter of no objection for GRAS status issued in August by FDA likely will change that. Archer Daniels Midland acquired a license to produce Puratein and Supertein, a related isolate, in 2003, but uncertainty about consumer acceptance and regulatory status forestalled production. The no-objection letter is expected to ease food companies’ reservations  about using the ingredient.

Helping guide Burcon through the development process is Randy Willardsen, senior vice president of process technology and an engineer with expertise in membrane filtration. Beginning with whey protein, Willardsen has been involved in the production of protein isolates for three decades and has cofounded several related businesses, including a membrane-filtration equipment supplier. Besides canola-derived protein, Willardsen is helping refine Burcon’s process for soy protein isolate, a product he predicts will reach commercialization at an accelerated rate, compared to canola.

Randy Willardsen, senior vice president, process technology, Burcon Nutrascience Corp., Winnipeg, Manitoba. Source: Burcon Nutrascience.

FE: Have there been changes to your protein extraction process in the last decade?

Willardsen: Basically it’s the same chemical-free extraction method, regardless of whether you’re dealing with canola meal, soy meal or another raw material. The meal is mixed with water and salt to solubilize the protein, followed by clarification, purification and concentration. After cold water is added to reduce the solution’s ionic strength, the protein forms micelles, which are hydrophobic and can be run through a mechanical separation step. The micelles are then dried.

A lot of refinements have been made to the original process. At first, we took commercial canola meal, the byproduct after oil has been extracted from the rapeseed. But to produce a high-quality protein, extraction has to run at a much lower temperature than it typically does, and that required our involvement in the meal’s production. There were many other issues, as well, such as deactivation of enzymes, which usually is done at temperatures that also knock out the proteins. Part of the appeal of soy protein is that we can take the meal as-is from suppliers.


FE: Is work continuing on canola protein?

Willardsen: In the last two years, we have not done a lot of research on the canola. We consider that work finished and are instead focused on soy protein isolate. The processes are not identical, but they’re similar. And because of all the years of work on canola, we have research scientists in Winnipeg who now are experts in plant proteins.


FE: Burcon filed for self-affirmed GRAS status for its canola isolates in 2008. How did industry react?

Willardsen: We went back to major food companies, and four or five said, “That’s well and good, but we’re not interested unless you get a letter of no objection from FDA.” We went through another $2 million worth of toxicology reports and technical reviews and finally were given final GRAS status. Now it’s up to ADM to decide when and if commercial production can proceed.

Canola is a great product, and as more research into its health benefits is done, we believe some very positive health claims will be allowed. Although canola is still a big part of our portfolio, we have to educate people about it, and that takes time. Soy protein, on the other hand, is already a multi-billion dollar product, it’s well understood by the consumer, and manufacturers already can make a heart-health claim when using it. 


FE: What distinguishes your soy protein from others?

Willardsen: We emphasize the native characteristics of the proteins and the mechanical extraction, whereas the others use acid to extract the protein. Existing proteins also appear chalky in solution and impart a beany flavor. Our development focus was on a protein that would be transparent and soluble in acidic drinks such as fruit juices and soft drinks.

We’re a technology company, not a marketing company, and it was an eye-opener to get feedback from food companies. They looked at the lack of flavor as the primary benefit. The absence of flavor and odor also opens up possibilities with nutrition bars, extruded meats and other products.


FE: How did you get involved in Burcon’s R&D?

Willardsen: The process demanded ultrafiltration, and I’ve been involved in that for more than 30 years, beginning with whey protein. One of the big problems we had early on with whey was convincing the plant operators that they had a valuable product and should stop treating it like garbage. Today, some companies make more money from whey protein than they do from the cheese they make. Canola meal is a waste product, too, and changing attitudes is one of the challenges there, as well.

Whey protein costs less than egg isolates, which are wildly expensive, but there is limited availability of whey. Soy proteins are at the low end in terms of cost. Supply isn’t an issue: Only 2 percent of soy production goes to human food. There’s so much raw material out there, we can’t make a dent in it.


FE: How soon might your soy protein reach commercialization?

Willardsen: We’re in negotiations right now with some of the world’s largest food companies. We have a potential partner who would produce the product and another who would market it after we build and operate the plant. Either way, I expect a plant to be producing by 2011. Nutritionally, soy is similar to eggs, meat and milk in the completeness of the protein, as measured by PDCAAS (protein digestibility corrected amino acid score), but functionality as an ingredient has been a problem. We’ve addressed functionality with attributes of acid solubility, clarity and tastelessness. We think it’s going to be wildly successful.


FE: Entrenched interests don’t give up their markets easily. Might plant proteins face challenges similar to alternative energy sources?

Willardsen: Everybody agrees that plant proteins are where we need to be. The efficiency of producing animal proteins by feeding plant proteins to livestock is just horrible. Our cost of production is not significantly different than existing plant protein processes, so pricing will only require a slight premium. Unlike alternative energy, the cost compared to animal protein will be considerably less.

Ground water pollution from feed-lot operations, methane production from livestock, escalating fuel costs for transportation, the high ratio of grain needed to produce a pound of product-all of these factors call into question the sustainability of animal proteins. Originally, people in California liked the cows when big dairy operations set up shop. As the issues surrounding livestock crop up, attitudes are changing.

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