New research from the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Food Science demonstrates that fava beans hold “great promise as a non-soy source of plant protein.” Moreover, the crop is touted as a better alternative to soy, when assessed based on its environmental impact. This comes at a time when more Danes, in line with shifts in global consumer patterns, are opting to supplement or completely replace their consumption of animal-based proteins with plant-based alternatives.

Fava beans are expected to enjoy more time in the spotlight in line with the rise of the “The Plant-Based Revolution,” pegged as Innova Market Insights’ second Top Trend of 2020. Plant-based innovation in food and beverages continues to flourish as a result of consumer interest in health, sustainability and ethics, which ties into the broader consumer lifestyle trend towards cleaner living.

“Many consumers are crying out for alternatives to soy, a crop that places great strain on the environment,” explains Iben Lykke Petersen, Assistant Professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Food Science, and one of the researchers behind the study recently published in the journal Foods.

“This prompted us to find a method of processing fava beans in such a way that allows us to produce a concentrated protein powder. One of the advantages of fava beans is that they can be grown here, locally in Denmark. This is excellent news for the climate,” he adds.

The rising crop holds already potential in numerous applications. In terms of egg replacement, for instance, pulses like fava bean offer improved performance due to their natural protein content, which acts as an emulsifier. 

Manufacturers have taken note of fava’s potential as the most neutral tasting of pulses, which allows other flavors to shine through when it is used as an ingredient. In its egg-alternative solution, Univar Solutions has developed a “deflavored” option available to reduce off-notes even further.

Using a unique method known as “wet fractionation,” the researchers succeeded in concentrating fava bean protein and removing substances that would otherwise inhibit the digestion of the protein. 

New method makes fava powder “burst with protein”

To find an alternative to environmentally taxing soybean, the study’s researchers tested various crops, looking for those with the greatest potential as a protein powder, while also being able to be grown locally. Here, fava beans outperformed lentils, amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa.

Using a unique method known as “wet fractionation,” the researchers succeeded in concentrating fava bean protein and removing substances that would otherwise inhibit the digestion of the protein. This allows nutritious fava bean proteins to be more readily absorbed when consumed.

“Wet fractionation is accomplished by milling beans into a flour, and then adding water and blending the mixture into a soup. Thereafter, it becomes easier for us to sort out the less beneficial substances and produce an optimized product,” explains Petersen. 

“Our results demonstrate that this method significantly increases protein content. Furthermore, through our tests, we can see that this protein is nearly as readily digested as when we break down protein from animal products, such meat and eggs,” she adds. 

“Far more” sustainable

Fava beans are touted by the researchers as “far more” sustainable than soy. The crop is pegged as better suited for climate considerations because they can be cultivated locally, unlike soybeans, which are primarily grown in the US and South America, then exported to Denmark.

Moreover, they note that numerous farms in Brazil and Paraguay have cleared large tracts of forest to create space for soybean fields. This has had severely negative consequences for wildlife, biodiversity and CO2 emissions.

“Another important factor is that, unlike fava beans, lots of soy is genetically modified to be able to tolerate Roundup, [an herbicide from Monsanto]. Within this context, many consumers are critical of soy’s environmental consequences,” explains Petersen.

Competitive color, taste and texture

While the nutritional quality of a protein is one characteristic of interest to formulators, taste is of course another critical element. In the context of this benchmark, fava beans are said to be able to compete with soy and other plant-based protein alternatives. Petersen explains that when fava beans are processed correctly, their proteins retain their “naturally bright color, along with a neutral taste and good texture.”

“Manufacturers prefer a product that is tasteless, has a neutral color and a firm texture. Fava beans tick each of these boxes, unlike peas, which often have a very bitter aftertaste,”  she concludes.