Sustainable Protein Food Strategies

Originally Published: November 22, 2019
Last Updated: February 4, 2021

THE CHALLENGES OF AND POTENTIAL steps toward achieving and maintaining a sustainable, global protein supply were the focus of a presentation focused on sustainable protein food strategies from Clyde Don, Ph.D., a consultant in the food science and green chemical industries, based in the Netherlands, and Managing Director of CDC FoodPhysica Lab.

The diet of the Dutch in the 1880s, as illustrated by van Gogh’s masterpiece The Potato Eaters, was not ideal, and it was undoubtedly protein deficient. A little over a century later, the food system has dramatically improved; however, improvements to the current global protein supply are still needed.

In developed countries, the protein quality of diets is much improved over those portrayed in van Gogh’s masterpiece, The Potato Eaters, from the 1880s. However, improve-ments to the current global protein supply are still needed.

While global resources exist to feed the world, not all people eat a high-quality diet in terms of protein. Plant-based proteins can help meet global protein needs, and 5% annual growth in the plant protein market has been forecast in the developed countries (such as in North America, Western Europe).

Animal- and plant-based proteins differ in their quality for human nutrition. Protein quality is related to both its digestibility and its amino acid composition. Animal proteins usually have an excellent amino acid composition with respect to human nutrition. In contrast, single protein sources from plants may be low in essential amino acids, such as lysine.

Proteins from various plant sources can be blended to achieve a much better amino acid composition and nutritional value, however. For example, a mixture of rice, mung bean, sesame and carrots approximates casein, a relatively high-quality animal protein, in terms of nutritional quality, said Don.

In addition to nutritional quality, the functionality of animal proteins is challenging to replicate with plant proteins. Early attempts to replace meat with plant proteins led to rubbery, dry products with little taste. Clever blending of proteins can provide both better quality protein and better functionality.

Some of the same factors affect both protein quality and protein functionality. Solubility and the ability to form stiff gels are important to protein functionality in foods, and both are influenced by the amino acid composition of the protein. Protein blends can be used to formulate improved meat-like textures, although achieving proper juiciness remains challenging.

The need to obtain sufficient protein will remain a global concern, even while technical challenges are overcome. Don out-lined five steps to transition towards a more sustainable global protein supply.

Step 1. Sausage of the future: Incorporating alternative proteins represents an easy and currently available way to move away from the overuse of meat. Sausage is one of the first food products that humans developed. As a mixture of ingredients, sausage can be redesigned by blending different proteins beyond meat (e.g., pulses, cereals/grains, fruits/vegetables, nuts and insects).

Step 2. Animal protein waste recovery: Animal proteins that are currently treated as waste products can be reformulated and utilized as foods. For example, the low solubility of egg yolk powder waste can be greatly improved by enzymatic digestion, allowing it to be used in bakery products or protein beverages. Collagen proteins are another animal protein which may enter the waste stream; however, collagen can be added to sausages, thus increasing product yield, reducing cooking loss and improving texture.

Step 3. New sources of protein: New, sustainable sources of protein are being explored. Insect protein shows promise, but it is not currently eliciting much consumer interest (and may cause reactions in those with shrimp and shellfish allergies). Seaweed is another newer protein source which is produced without using land; however, its water solubility and protein content, both of which are desirable for use in food products, are highly variable. Duckweed, despite poor solubility, has shown promise as an ingredient in certain foods, such as bakery products, suggested Don.

Step 4. Novel proteins from the lab: Generating egg proteins without a chicken (or beef without a cow) by using a bioreactor is in the development stage but has not yet reached the marketplace. At least in the EU and the Netherlands, some regulatory resistance to moving cultured proteins into the food chain exists. [Editor’s Note: For the situation in the U.S., see Jessica O’Connell’s presentation “From Cellular Agriculture to Plant-based Milks: Hot Issues in the Protein Arena,” in this issue on page 10 and online at]

Step 5. Protein on demand: Modern technology, such as CRISPR-Cas, could be used to change the amino acid composition of proteins “on demand” to provide desired protein functionality and quality. Fermentation technology (and the scaling up of said technology) is already available that could make this goal a reality.

“Creative Reformulation of Protein Foods: Five Steps toward a Sustainable Protein Supply,” Clyde Don, Ph.D., Managing Director, CDC FoodPhysica Lab

This presentation was given at the 2019 Protein Trends & Technologies Seminar. To download presentations from this event, go to

See past and future Protein Trends & Technologies Seminars at