New plant protein research center opens on campus

The University of Minnesota’s Plant Protein Innovation Center opened last Wednesday.

Helen Sabrowsky

The University of Minnesota’s Plant Protein Innovation Center — an interdisciplinary research program that will produce and study plant-based proteins — opened Wednesday.

The PPIC is the first center of its kind in the country and will bring together researchers from across the University, nation and world. The center aims to move plant protein forward to address the needs of the growing global population and changing climate.

Interest in alternative protein sources is growing, said College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences Dean Brian Buhr, in part due to protein being a food product that uses a lot of resources. Most forms of protein use more natural resources, like water, compared to other types of produce, such as grains. 

Protein is critical to human development, and researchers are interested in exploring ways to produce protein more efficiently, he said. 

“Finding protein sources that are more sustainable is becoming imperative as the global population grows and with climate change — we want to be more responsible environmental stewards,” said Claire Boyle, a research assistant in the center. 

Younger individuals are particularly interested in plant-based protein, Boyle said. “Especially among the younger generation of consumers, they want to be tied into the story of their food and they want confidence and trust in their food,” she said.

One of the center’s goals is to work with plant-based proteins from breeding and developing ingredients to formulating products and marketing them, Boyle said.

B. Pam Ismail, director of the PPIC, said she formed the center with the support of the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Science and the Department of Food Science and Nutrition, which also houses the center.

The PPIC is a collaborative center that will bring together interdisciplinary research to solve some of the issues plant protein producers face, Buhr said. 

“When you look at plant-based proteins, the issue is often that they’re not very flavorful, they don’t have great characteristics for texture and all the things we look at in food ingredients,” he said. “Oftentimes they’re not ready for direct consumption.”

Jim House, head of the University of Manitoba’s Department of Food and Human Nutritional Sciences and researchers with the center, studies the quality of a protein from a nutritional standpoint. He said he looks at how well the protein is digested and absorbed by people, as well as how efficiently proteins meet human amino acid requirements. 

Because the center will focus on pre-competitive research, basic information about plant proteins in the field is still emerging. It’s attracted attention from food industry leaders and companies that will support the center financially, Boyle said. 

Moving forward, the center will look at hosting short courses over the summer and holding research spotlight meetings early next year, she said. 

Correction: a previous version of this article misstated how the Plant Protein Innovation Center was established. B. Pam Ismail, director of the center, worked with the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences and the Department of Food Science and Nutrition to form the center.