University of Alberta discovers high-protein, plant-based alternative to gelatin

July 17, 2023

Gelatin is surprisingly ubiquitous in our lives. It’s used as a thickener in foods such as soups, sauces and candies, as well as to make capsules for drugs and supplements. What few realize is that most gelatin comes from cows, pigs and fish.

“There is a huge global market for a plant-based gelatin substitute right now,” says Dr. Lingyun Chen, Professor and Canada Research Chair in Plant Protein Structure Function at the Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science at the University of Alberta.

“We have more and more vegans and vegetarians who want an alternative. The growing Muslim population need Halal options, and there’s also increased interest in plant-based food as part of a more sustainable food system.”

In 2022, Chen and her team inadvertently discovered a way to create a powerful plant-based gelatin substitute from pea protein, for which they have a patent pending. This unique product is not only higher in protein than existing plant-based gelatin substitutes, but also has the ability to change easily from liquid to gel – and back again.

“During an experiment, we accidentally found that certain conditions, such as pH, caused ‘thermal reversibility’ in pea protein, which could make industrial applications much easier,” explains Chen.

NPC is contributing $78,430 to help Chen’s team evaluate how the pea protein-based gelatin substitute performs in real-food applications, such as gummy bears and plant-based yogurt, and to prove its ability to scale up.

According to Chen, “The NPC money will be very important to demonstrate that our process can be used in industry. There are certain treatments, such as pasteurization, that you don’t do in the lab. If the ingredients can survive these treatments, it will be that much closer to market.”

Chen is working in collaboration with a multinational leader in plant-based ingredients, which will use peas grown in Canada as the raw material for the ingredient. If successful, manufacturing the value-added gelatin substitute could boost the local economy, and even help push up the price of Canadian pea protein globally.

For now, Chen is excited to develop something in her lab that has market potential, and is grateful for NPC support. “This funding opportunity can help us bridge from the lab into commercialization – benefiting Canada, contributing to sustainable agriculture, and providing a nutritious alternative for people around the world.”

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