Insects, ancient grains, legumes, algae and bioengineered ‘beef’ – what do these have in common and how will they impact pet food palatability?
Whether the rationale is sustainability, nutritional potency or customer appeal
– and whether these benefits are perceived or real – the number and variety of new protein sources appearing on the market continues to increase.
The changing landscape
With topics like ’US cricket market scales up’ and ‘New non-dairy protein blossoms in Germany’ (discussing lupine flour), the blogosphere abounds with stories intimating that traditional protein sources such as poultry and pork are a vanishing ‘breed’. Since these trends in the human food discourse are already extending into the pet food arena, it is important to identify and adapt to any potential impacts on quality, including palatability.
A recent report from Lux Research projects that protein alternatives to meat and fish could potentially claim 33% of the world’s protein market by 2054! While soy represents most of this in the near term, industry experts predict that the use of other alternatives will increase in importance over time.
Second generation proteins
Negative consumer perceptions about soy, corn and wheat have spurred research efforts to explore additional non-meat protein options. ‘Second generation proteins’ such as peas and rice represent alternatives already prevalent on pet food labels. Other plant sources such as sorghum may be useful, but are just beginning to be explored for companion animals. These alternatives differ in starch and fat composition, so can impact physical characteristics of extruded and baked products, requiring adjustments in processing parameters.
Third generation proteins
Following these relatively mainstream options comes ‘third generation’ alternatives such as insects and algae. These are excellent protein sources nutritionally; flours made from insects or algae are commercially available for a variety of applications. However, aside from consumer acceptance, desired sustainability and cost, goals are yet to be achieved. For instance, cricket farms generally use poultry feed, but a recent study indicated that insects are as inefficient as chickens in converting poultry feed to protein.
Alternative diets such as industrial food waste would improve sustainability but feed conversion is lower unless the waste is pre-processed. Currently, high production costs are the main obstacle to insect-based feedstuffs, and will need to be addressed to effectively compete with fishmeal and soybean meal in agricultural markets. From a flavour perspective, flour made from grain-fed crickets is purported to be flavour neutral, but may impact texture, requiring formula adjustments. A health consideration is that crickets are genetically related to shrimp and crabs, so individuals with shellfish allergy may need to avoid them.
Relative to palatability, many alternative protein sources have unfamiliar or unpleasant flavour profiles that must be overcome before they can be integrated into diets in levels sufficient to impact mainstream protein sources.
For example, peas are high in bitter compounds such as saponins and have an aroma profile that is more challenging than soy. Peas also have a different textural impact. Processing methods have evolved which can improve these factors to some degree, but pea flavour and functional properties remain more challenging than soy in most systems studied. Third-generation alternatives present similar, if not more extreme, challenges.
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