Dr. Pam Ismail, Founder and Director of the Plant Protein Innovation Center at the University of Minnesota, discusses land-to-consumer research and why cleaner processing is essential for nutritional integrity and functionality. Quality research provides the science needed to close the gaps between production and consumption.
Nicole Astra: Welcome to Talking Plant Protein. My guest today brings 23 years experience of food chemistry research to the conversation. She's currently the director at the Plant Protein Innovation Center at the University of Minnesota. Dr. Pam Ismail, thank you so much for joining us. Tell us about the innovation center and also your role there.
Dr. Pam Ismail: My pleasure. Thank you for having me on the show today. I love to talk about plant protein anytime. The Plant Protein Innovation Center is about two and a half years old. I founded it in November of 2018, and the center really is a platform that brings together industry and researchers to innovate in the space of plant proteins. Our mission really is to bring interdisciplinary researchers and industry point of view, to bring to the consumer a nutritious, a functional protein ingredients and products. And we work all the way from production on the land, to formulation, processing and consumer, all the way through the value chain, if you may call it. So from the land to the consumer.
We are a center that has several researchers. So I'm a director, but at the same time, I'm a researcher as well. And we have 25 researchers associated with the center. And as of today, we have 30 industry members. They range in size and they range also in specialty. So we have ingredient companies, the CPG companies, breeding companies. So they bring to the table, strategies and opportunities in this area to address this increased need and consumer desire for protein, and not just protein, plant proteins from sustainable sources.
In order for them to formulate with new plant protein ingredients, they really need to understand, how do they function? What's the nutrition? What's the flavor component? How can they replace animal-based protein or even other types of proteins that the consumer would like not to see in their products? In order for them to be able to do this work, they need basic science. So that's where we come in and we work as scientists in the field. We work with breeders and geneticists to produce crops when it has protein quantity, quality, functionality.
And then we look at innovative way to produce the ingredients. And then looking at characterizing these ingredients in terms of structure, function, nutrition, flavor, and how we can formulate in different applications that are trendy applications right now, such as daily alternatives, high protein beverages, snacks, and so on. Then we also assess the consumer acceptability of the final product.
Nicole Astra: And who's funding the research?
Dr. Pam Ismail: Our funding sources range from being a member in the center, our industry members pay annual fee to be a member. And those membership dollars, they all go into a bucket that we use for basic research and also to fund our administrative costs as well. But 70% of membership dollars go towards research. We also seek other sources of research funding. Basically we go after foundations, federal funding, state funding. So it's kind of diverse. As long as we're able to get funding that addresses our research priorities and the mission of the center.
Nicole Astra: And as you investigate cleaner processing techniques, what innovations have you seen in agriculture that have less environmental impact?
Dr. Pam Ismail: First of all, before we get to processing, we're trying to investigate crops from sustainable agriculture. The consumer is interested in the environment. We also are interested in producing or being able to utilize the land in more efficient way. So we're looking at crops that would potentially sustain the nutrients in the soil, prevent soil erosion, being able to be planted as a crop in a crop rotation, so we can maximize yield in a certain piece of land.
Then from there, we're trying to look at ways to process these crops in order to produce the ingredients in a way that will have less energy use, consumption of energy that is, or less solvent use, more organic, if we're able to. So there's a lot of research going in this area to produce ingredients that is more cost-effective, energy-efficient and less use of solvents. And then from there, the processing obviously, looking at the clean label and how we can process foods with less amount of ingredients or less synthetic ingredients. So research is happening, as I said, from the land to the consumer, along these lines.
Nicole Astra: Can you tell me what nutritional quality means to you and your research? And then how do we maintain nutritional integrity through processing?
Dr. Pam Ismail: That's a very good question. And it's kind of, to me as a scientist, I know that consumers have a negative feeling about processing. But then I'd like to remind consumers and the listeners that processing is important for so many reasons. First of all, to make the food healthy. To reduce microbes for not just spoilage, but pathogenic microorganisms. Also to enhance the flavor of the food that we're consuming. So processing is not necessarily a bad thing, but again, anything in excess or excessive can become bad.
So, a long lists of ingredients, high salt concentration, harsh thermal treatments, so that could potentially be harmful to our health and to the nutrition in general. So modest processing is essential. And if we look at any nutrition label, for example, and if we want to focus on proteins and you look at the amount of protein is in the serving, there is next to it, sometimes, something called present daily value. So how much of this protein satisfy the daily requirement for protein consumption? So this takes into account, not just the protein content, but the amino acid composition and the digestibility of the protein after it's been processed. After the food has been produced.
Let's say you have a 12, or let's say for simplicity of math, 10 grams of proteins in serving. However, eight grams of these proteins will be biologically available. So what would be reported in present daily value takes into account only eight grams of that 10 grams protein. So it's calculated for you when it's presented, hopefully accurately on the label.
Nicole Astra: Since all plant proteins aren't processed the same, what should be on the consumer's radar?
Dr. Pam Ismail: Yes. So this is kind of a multi-facet type of question. There's the consumer perception and there's also the producer perception, and then there's the scientist perception as well. The consumer really kind of, sometimes, may not necessarily understand what goes through the processing and then just think that it's all bad or not good for them, but it's good to educate the consumer as well as the processor when we're handling any ingredient, not just plant proteins, anything in general.
Anything in excess, anything excessive is going to be bad. Anything in moderation is great. So what the industry is trying to do is address consumers concern. So the consumer is looking for more natural food, more organic, sustainable sources, less ingredients in the list of ingredients, less additives that are added for color, for flavor or for texture. So they're looking for natural ingredients. And that's what the industry is trying to accomplish. But in order for the industry to reach this goal, they need to work closely with scientists, with researchers.
And that's, again if I bring back to the purpose of the center, that's what we're trying to do. Is make that bridge between the science, the research, the producer, and the consumer. So we need to do a lot of research to help the producer utilize less additives, more healthy ingredients, more natural ways of processing. And at the same time, reach an acceptable flavor, acceptable texture, and also healthy food options for the consumer.
Again I stress on the point of moderation. Processing is not bad, if we do it right and if we have the right list of ingredients that have been processed in a moderate, modest, keeping in mind, the nutrition and the health, as well as, at the same time, if it doesn't taste good, nobody's going to eat it, nobody's going to buy it. So we need to keep the taste, the texture, the appearance altogether. We have to reach kind of like an agreement or something that will allow the consumer to enjoy their product, but at the same time, get the nutritional benefit and feel good about their purchase choice.
Nicole Astra: I really appreciate your perspective today. Tell me what's next for the innovation center and for the future of plant proteins.
Dr. Pam Ismail: Oh, I see bright things for the future of plant proteins. It's a wave that is not going to fade anytime soon. We have a population that is growing and it's going to be 10 billion by 2050. So we really need to be creative and we really need to find new sources to feed the growing population. We need to protect our environment. We need to protect our land, earth. We have to think creatively in, how do we practice agriculture, whether for animal production or for plant production.
So the Plant Protein Innovation Center, one of its main focus is sustainable agriculture, trying to produce crops that will give us ingredients that satisfy the consumer need for high protein diet, plant-based diet, sustainable sources. That's kind of a big thing and it's not really just the next big thing. This is the big thing that will go on for a little while, and it's not going to fade. And we hope that by the end, if we're ever going to reach an end, that we protect the environment, provide additional plant protein sources for the consumer and enhance the way we produce things and keeping in mind the nutrition, the satisfaction of the consumer as well as of the economic benefit of our farmers, of our industry. Yeah, there's a lot of work that needs to be done and we hope to keep going.
Nicole Astra: I appreciate your time. Thank you again, Dr. Pam Ismail.
Dr. Pam Ismail: You're welcome. Thank you for having me.