In a three-year project food scientists at the University of Alberta placed the plain looking lentils under a microscope and uncovered a few surprises. In a breakthrough moment, they discovered a leavening quality that increases baking options for vegetarians and vegans.
Dr. Lingyun Chen and her team from the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences, conducted numerous tests and successfully baked airy muffins and an angel food cake using a lentil protein powder that replaces eggs and milk.
Taste tests were conducted with a sampling of about 70 to 90 people, mainly university staff and students.
“Both (muffins and angel food cake) were very well received, especially the muffins,” said Chen, a professor and Canada Research Chair.
She initiated the project after noting how consumer demand for plant-based protein such as lentils, beans, peas, and chick-peas has spiked. More and more health conscious shoppers are substituting meat and cheese protein for plant proteins low in cholesterol and fat.
“Currently in food, it’s a trend. We are seeing an increase in plant protein in diets and we wanted to see if we could replace the animal protein,” she said. “It is less expensive and lentil protein is also not regarded as a major allergen. It has good nutritional value because it’s a pulse, and it’s gluten free.”
The lens-shaped lentil seeds are rich in amino acids and are packed with essential vitamins and minerals such as folate, manganese, iron, phosphorous, copper, vitamin B1 and potassium. They improve digestion, maintain a healthy heart, control diabetes and assist in weight loss among other benefits.
Although lentils display superfood properties, protein powder mixed into bakery products that do not use milk and eggs demonstrate issues with batter and dough. The challenges are to develop replacement formulations that are appealing in taste and texture.
The team borrowed department recipes for muffins and angel food cake that called for standard ingredients: flour, sugar, oil and baking powder. Leaving out egg whites and milk, Chen instead added an emulsion stabilizer made from lentil protein powder blended with water.
“It (the blend) has an excellent foaming capacity. The foam gave it a light texture and a springiness.”
The foam created air bubbles in the batter during the baking process, which gave the cake and muffins a light texture with the traditional full-mouth feel.
“Our goal was to create a cake and muffins for vegetarians and vegans and eventually to make gluten free food.”
Through this finding, Chen sees a huge market opening and believes research is important in developing Alberta’s lentil industry. At the moment, the province lags behind Saskatchewan, Canada’s major producer of peas, lentils and chickpeas.
In 2012 Alberta farmers grew 68,000 acres worth of lentils compared to Saskatchewan’s 2.4 million acres. By 2015 Saskatchewan’s lentil exports were worth $2.5 billion.
The study is only the first part of development with commercial production still two to three years into the future. The recipe requires tweaking and broader taste tests are necessary. Increased farm production, additional mills and markets need to be scouted.
“If any industry partners are interested in taking it to the next level, we are happy to work with them.”
Chen envisions a trilateral partnership with researchers working directly with farm producers and the food processing industry to provide the optimum product.
“We can give recommendations and now link the research to producers to the food processing industry.”
The project’s $400,000 research budget receives funding from both the provincial and federal governments as well as several industry partners including Alberta Pulse Growers, Saskatchewan Pulse Growers, Kinnikinnick Food and WA Grain Pulse Solutions.
Dr. Chen’s study was published this year in the International Journal of Food Science and Technology. A summary is available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ijfs.13433/full