Planting the Seeds of Something New

Oats and oat products. Photo provided by Sask Oats.

Plant Protein is Taking the World by Storm

A few years ago, the term ‘plant-based diet’ was unknown to most people. Fast forward to 2020 and it is on everybody’s mind. Following a plant-based diet means the main focus is on ‘plant-based’ foods such as vegetables, grains and fruit but it doesn’t necessarily exclude all meat and dairy. Some people are taking a flexible approach to reducing meat consumption. For others, it also ties in with an awareness and desire to eat food that is ethically produced and sustainable.

A shift in consumer preferences towards plant-based food is sweeping across the country. A recent study by Abacus Data revealed that 51 per cent of Canadians have reduced the amount of meat they eat in the past year or are considering reducing meat consumption.1

With consumers eating less meat, the opportunities for plant-based meat and dairy alternatives are growing. Replacing animal protein means two things: eating more protein rich vegetables and (or) substituting meat and dairy with meat/dairy looking and tasting products derived from plants. New product development and value-added food processing primarily focuses on the latter.

Taking the Pulse

Saskatchewan and the prairies already produce many of the crops that are establishing a new generation of plant-based protein and dairy alternatives. One of the most popular crops for this purpose are pulses—the edible seeds of the legume family that include peas, lentil and beans. They are high in protein, fiber and starch.

Carl Potts, executive director of Saskatchewan Pulse Growers explains why pulses are suitable for the province: “The pulse varieties we grow here are well adapted to dry conditions and can achieve good yields even under low moisture conditions,” he says. “Over the past 30 years, farmers have looked for crops that diversify their crop rotations and bring additional revenue to their operations.”

Potts sees a direct relationship between the demand for plant-based protein and the demand for pulses, especially peas and lentils. “In the last five years, demand for pulses as an ingredient in food products in North America has increased,” he says. Both peas and lentils can be fractionated into protein, starch and fibre which is used as ingredients in value added plant-based protein products.

Peas are currently the most used crop for plant-based protein products but the up-and-coming crop in the pulse family is the fava bean (also known as faba). Prairie Fava is a relatively new company founded by fifth-generation farmer Cale Jefferies and his wife Hailey. The Manitoba based company sells fava beans in bulk and as flour and is working on product innovations that will be marketed directly to consumers through the service industry. Kelley Fitzpatrick, technical advisor for Prairie Fava, expands on why the fava bean is well-suited as a plant protein: “Fava has a more natural flavour which extends its applicability in various food applications since it doesn’t have a as strong ‘beany’ after taste as you will find in pea products,” she says.

Furthermore, the fava bean is a sustainable crop with a high nitrogen fixation of the soil. “Not only does it enhance the ability to grow without the amount of fertilizers that are necessary for some other crops, it also provides nitrogen for subsequent crops in rotation,” Fitzpatrick explains.

Sowing Oats

Oats at Harvest. Photo by Sask Oats.

The change in consumer preferences also includes developing alternatives for dairy products. While soy and nut-based dairy alternatives have been on the market for some time, new products that are suitable for people that can’t consume nuts and soy due to allergies, or for those wanting more options are emerging.

Oat milk is the new hot trend in coffee shops around the country. Oats are naturally gluten free and some baristas prefer oat milk over soy and nut milk because of texture and taste, and the demand for oat milk has sky rocked.

For Saskatchewan, this is good news. Nuts are difficult to grow in Canada, but oat production is well-established.  Alan Butuk, chairman of SaskOats, welcomes the increased interest in oat-based dairy alternatives. “We can help supply a market we didn’t have in the past,” he says. While it’s too early to see a direct relationship between the oat milk trend and the oat production in Saskatchewan, Butuk agrees that the opportunities are exciting. “Certainly, with the increase in interest of non-dairy based drinks you are not going to hurt the [oat] market,” he says.

Development of other dairy alternatives such as yogurt and ice cream are in full progress. Prairie Fava is working on a fava-based ice cream product, and Oatdeal in Saskatoon, has a variety of oat-based smoothies and a soft serve ice cream on the market. George Barrerras, founder of Oatdeal says his company is developing a milk product with flexitarians in mind: “This is a milk made with 50 per cent oats and 50 per cent milk (lactose-free) …’Realk’ is made for flexitarians and has no questionable ingredients, all natural,” Barrerras explains.

Let’s Add Some Value

There are a number of local companies focusing on the value-added process and the Saskatchewan Food Development Centre plays an important part in research and development with the goal to add value to crops grown in the province.  “Why ship [crops] out when you can do something here to make a bit of money through the value chain,” Fitzpatrick asks.

It is clear that the interest in plant-based food presents exciting opportunities for Saskatchewan and the country. Carl Potts is optimistic. “The Canadian pulse industry has a goal of creating new demand for 25 per cent of our domestic pulse production by 2025,” he says. “This is a market growth and diversification goal to have pulses capitalize on the growth in demand for plant-based protein.” Kelley Fitzpatrick also sees a bright future. “The industry must work together and participate in the value chain,” she says. “This is a real opportunity for Canada and for companies like Prairie Fava.”

Growers and food processors in Saskatchewan are in a great position. With excellent manufacturing capabilities and transportation infrastructure to consumers in both Canada and the US, the plant-based protein trend is an opportunity simply too good to pass on!

1What consumer attitudes tell us about potential shifts in consumer behaviour in Canada towards plant-based alternatives, Abacus Data, https://abacusdata.ca/a-meatless-revolution-or-a-temporary-fad/