Big Interview: Johann Tergesen, president, Burcon NutraScience

Plant protein, the final frontier: From canola to flax, hemp and pea

Related tags Canola protein Nutrition

Burcon boss Johann Tergesen rang the NASDAQ stock market opening bell as his firm's shares started trading on the exchange last week
Burcon boss Johann Tergesen rang the NASDAQ stock market opening bell as his firm's shares started trading on the exchange last week
If there’s a plant with protein in it, Burcon NutraScience has probably had a good shot at extracting it. But is the market ready for flax protein isolate? Elaine Watson caught up with president and chief operating officer Johann Tergesen to find out.

Vegetable protein is bang on trend – and if you can produce it in a way that’s cost effective and delivers in the functionality and​ nutrition stakes – you should be onto a winner, right?

You bet, says the boss of Canadian technology firm Burcon NutraScience. But success in this field does not come overnight. Manufacturers understand soy protein, and they’re getting to grips with peas – but it’s taking a while to educate them about canola, he admits.

Clarisoy​ [Burcon’s ‘invisible’ soy protein] is truly disruptive in the technology sense, but it’s building on a multi-billion dollar industry and infrastructure. People know soy – we were just offering a better version that would enable them to use it in a different way.

“But canola protein is not something people are used to using or seeing on a label.”

Protein has had a ‘bit of a rebirth’ in the US

Investors, however, clearly agree with Tergesen that the best things come to those who wait – given that they have been waiting for more than a decade for the company to get a product to market.

Demand for protein is going up and we need more alternatives to dairy, he says, whether it's to feed the emerging middle class in China and India or tap into health trends in mature markets such as the US where protein “has had a bit of a rebirth”​ lately.

“There’s a reason we’ve survived 13 years pre-revenue. People can see that we are a long-term investment and they put money where they anticipate future needs."

And investors have plenty of things to smile about now, adds Tergesen, given that ADM has just signed a global deal to produce, sell and market Clarisoy, one of the most exciting innovations to emerge from Burcon’s technology pipeline.

“You could say our risk profile has very significantly decreased.”

Clarisoy: ‘Invisible’ soy protein for low PH drinks

For acidic drinks with a pH of less than 4, Clarisoy 100 is heat-stable, 100% soluble and transparent, with no off flavors or odors and no ‘beany’ taste sometimes associated with soy, making it ideal for sports nutrition beverages, fruit and fruit-flavored juices, powdered beverage mixes and fortified waters, he said.

ADM has not revealed when commercial quantities will be available but has confirmed it is “aggressively pursuing​” its commercialization and building a plant to produce Clarisoy at its soy protein manufacturing facility in Decatur, Illinois.

It also showcased the protein in an orange/mango juice at the IFT show in June using samples produced at Burcon’s pilot facility in Winnipeg.

Canola: Technical and nutritional advantages

But what about other vegetable proteins? Canola protein is not as well known as soy, admits Tergesen. But it has some exciting technical and nutritional properties that combined with its non-allergenic, vegetarian status and competitive price make for a compelling proposition, he says.

“Innovative food companies are always looking for an innovative new ingredient that will give them the competitive edge, and this is something that can be used for high-end nutritional applications – it is very high in cysteine – or animal feed.

“But it can also perform a more technical function – as an emulsifier in sauces and dressings or as a means of adding protein to a nutrition bar that’s not as hygroscopic – so you don’t end up with a brick at the end.”

The other big benefit, he says, is that it’s not one of the big eight allergens, which gives it an immediate advantage over soy, milk and whey.

“What was very encouraging is that some major food and beverage companies approached us after seeing Clarisoy at IFT to ask what else we have going on in terms of canola and other protein technologies, and we’re talking about companies in the top five.”

We considered making them ourselves…

Burcon, which has a no objections letter from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) affirming the GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status of its Puratein and Supertein canola protein isolates, has shipped out significant quantities of both for sampling purposes, but has yet to sign a deal with a firm that will manufacture them in commercial quantities, however.

While it had a licensing and development agreement with ADM for Puratein and Supertein, it has not yet struck a production deal, although this is still being discussed.

“We have considered producing them ourselves, we’ve even researchedsites​” said Tergesen. “But we are a technology company. We don’t have the production expertise or the experience in selling, marketing and distributing food ingredients.

“We are going to stick to our knitting and work on doing a licensing and production deal or a joint venture with a partner to get the proteins to market.”

The fact that Canadian rival BioExx has already started producing canola proteins and recently struck a deal with​Hormel Foods’ Century Foods International division to co-develop a range of sports nutrition products was good news, he said.

“If they can do some of the heavy lifting in terms of creating primary demand for canola protein, then that’s great.”

Flax, pea and hemp protein?

Meanwhile, work is progressing on extraction and processing technologies for flax, hemp, pea and several other proteins, he says. But the commercial equations are very different.

“I believe something like 180-200m metric tons of soy might be produced in a crop year, the flax crop is more like 4m metric tons; you don’t get people crushing seeds 365 days a year in a continuous operation, so that’s going to affect whether it’s cost effective​ [to produce flax protein isolate].

“It all depends if you can bring something new to the table in terms of functionality and nutrition.”

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