Sask. companies on the pulse of new plant-based protein products

PIC in the News

Murad Al-Katib says he’s never been a fan of tofu. That is, until he tried Laura Gustafson’s recipe.

“When I first met Laura and ulivit and I tasted the tofu prototypes that they were working on with our ingredients, they were amazingly tasty,” said Al-Katib, the CEO of Regina-based AGT Food and Ingredients.

In Saskatoon, ulivit is an upstart company focusing on plant-based protein products. In an $11.3-million collaboration through Protein Industries Canada (PIC), announced Thursday, AGT will create the ingredients for companies like ulivit to use.

The ingredients are processed Saskatchewan-grown pulses (lentils, peas and beans), and they’ll contribute to “non-meat meat” — think Beyond Meat or Lightlife style products.

Those foods, Al-Katib explained, begin with a “texturized pulse protein,” which is “basically a combination of pulse proteins that are then extruded and then they are actually chopped or made into pieces.”

That texturized pulse protein is then flavoured and shaped into the final product.

In this project, AGT will be “looking at the perfection of texturized pulse protein for sausage, burgers, chicken.”

“We’re just seeing the plant-based market is exploding. Last year I think it was $5 billion in sales. It’s projected to hit $40 billion by 2025,” said Gustafson.

“It’s kind of being led by the millennials and Gen Zs,” she added, “because they’re really concerned about health, environment, sustainability, animal welfare. But it’s not just for them either; lots of meat eaters looking for it too and I think it’s just people want different options for proteins.”

Referencing those different options, Al-Katib pointed to 50-50 “flexitarian” products in grocery stores — half meat and half plant protein.

“People are looking for potentially a reduced fat, reduced cholesterol, and an environmental footprint that is more friendly,” he said.

PIC CEO Bill Greuel pointed to this project’s benefit for farmers, who can sell pulses closer to home.

Al-Katib talked about India’s quantitative restrictions on pulse imports, and Canada’s pulse producers having to compete and being left out because they’re too expensive for that market.

“This is an opportunity to take these products into an absolutely different market segment … and truly put it into domestic food use,” he said.

Pulse Canada has a goal of 25 per cent of pulses produced in Canada to enter domestic mills by 2025.

Affordability is an aim in this new project. Efficient processing will help bring down the cost of plant-based protein products for consumers.

“Gone are the days where a gluten-free snack that you’re buying in a bag is $7.99 and a bag of potato chips is $1.99,” he said. “If we want them to buy it every time they want a snack, it has to be $2.99, not $7.99. We might not meet the $1.99, but we can’t be $7.99.”

Al-Katib refers to “fractions” of protein concentrates, starch and flour concentrates, and fibres.

He pointed to one of the new products, a VeggiPasta rotini, which is entirely made from yellow pea, via the “starch flour concentrate fraction that we have leftover from the protein concentration.”

(That VeggiPasta has already been approved for United States school lunch programs, and Al-Katib has hopes that Canadian food accessibility organizations will get on board.)

“Protein concentrates” comprise 55 to 65 per cent protein, while “protein isolates” have 80 or more per cent protein value. In using concentrates, the cost is “dramatically lower.”

Al-Katib said AGT would be working with companies, like Beyond Meat and Maple Leaf Foods (which owns Lightlife), providing the ingredients “to make them more competitive.”

“We’re not going to be releasing all these projects under our own brands. Predominantly AGT is an ingredient provider,” said Al-Katib.

“They’re all our clients today and that’s one of the advantages we bring to the PIC supercluster.”

The PIC supercluster was created in 2018; this is its seventh project.

Published by: Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Written by: Ashley Martin