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Estonian researchers discovered expected hit “new Nutella” while developing a drink from sunflower seeds

Chocolate cream from sunflower seeds. Photo credit: Kristel Vene
Chocolate cream from sunflower seeds. Photo credit: Kristel Vene

The Estonian food industry is looking more and more into alternative proteins and products made from them. In cooperation with TalTech researchers, Letofin AS has developed a plant-based drink that is better balanced in terms of nutritional value than other available options, has a neutral taste and is free of allergens.

While the majority of plant-based drinks are not affordable for everyone, this one created in Estonia is made from raw materials, which allows the product to be sold at an affordable price. Letofin started the cooperation with TalTech scientists to develop a plant-based drink, but in the process another product was also created which they are hoping will become a bestseller.

Started with milk, but ended up with the “new Nutella”

Letofin representative Dmitri Eivin states that protein-rich foods made from sunflower seeds are rare, and a milk-like drink made from sunflower seeds has never existed before.

Eivin says that creating any new product requires a scientific approach. In this case, they needed information about the properties of sunflower seeds, their protein content and interaction with other ingredients. There was very little information about this in scientific sources, especially practical information, and that is why Letofin sought help from TalTech.

Kristel Vene, a senior lecturer at the Department of Food Technology at the Institute of Chemistry and Biotechnology at the Tallinn University of Technology, who led the research, reveals that in addition to the drink, sunflower seed butter was also developed in cooperation with Letofin – one of them like a regular nut butter and the other a sweeter chocolate-sunflower cream similar to Nutella.

“We believe that the product, which will soon be available to purchase, will become a new market leader,” said Vene with excitement.

To date, Letofin has resolved the main technological issues and found a manufacturing partner, and sunflower seed-based products will soon be on the market alongside other plant-based alternatives.

Conching of sunflower seed butter. This scaping and agitating methodology distributes oil and solid particles and promotes flavor development. Photo credit: Kristel Vene

Dmitri Eivin says that the company plans to start production of sunflower seed butter already this summer. In the coming year they hope to come out with a drink, and after some time it may also be possible to create sunflower seed yogurt.

“In terms of nutritional value, for example, compared to other similar milk alternatives, the sunflower seed drink is better balanced, with an excellent neutral taste and no allergens,” points out Kristel Vene. She confirms that it is a wholesome product that does not contain any known allergens (unlike, for example, soy) and contains a similar amount of protein and fat to milk.

“For example, a drink made from oats is too rich in carbohydrates as well as low in protein. The technology we have developed also allows a significant amount of fibre to be included, which in turn increases the nutritional value by acting as a prebiotic to support the microbiome of the human gut,” Vene says on the value of the beverage.

Good things are made from… production scraps

Processing of milk alternative from sunflower seeds presscake. Photo credit: Kristel Vene

But what are such valuable products made of and how? The answer is simple – both sunflower seed drink and butter are made from production scraps. Specifically, sunflower press cakes, which are a by-product of the extraction of oil from sunflower seeds.

Kristel Vene begins the explanation of product development by introducing the food waste hierarchy of the sustainable food system of the European Green Deal. According to this, the first priority in the system is the prevention of food waste, the second is the provision of by-products for human consumption and the third is its use as animal feed.

Currently, press cakes made of sunflower seeds are only used as animal feed, but their high nutritional value and food safety would offer opportunities to develop products intended for human consumption.

“When oil pressing, all the seed proteins, some lipids and fibre remain in the press cake,” notes Vene. “If used for human food, the described food chain would also be more sustainable.”

We had to solve the problem of green milk

Kristel Vene points out that since the raw materials are very different, the solutions created for the production of, for example, an oat or another milk alternative drink cannot be applied to the production of a sunflower seed drink.

“Our goal was to pre-process the raw produce as little as possible, and not to carry out the usual energy-intensive protein extraction. We also wanted to leave fibre in the product in order to offer a wholesome end product,” Vene explains on the need for research and adds that such a technological solution did not exist anywhere in the world before.

During product development, production technology was improved and tested and one factor that had inhibited the use of sunflower seeds until now was solved too – the problem of chlorogenic acid.

Vene explains that the chlorogenic acid contained in sunflower seeds oxidizes into a green complex and products containing, for example, sunflower seed flour, turn green with time. However, it would be very difficult for a company to convince consumers to accept a green-coloured milk alternative, even if chlorogenic acid is actually a health-promoting bioactive substance.

Why do we need alternatives?

Kristel Vene explains the existence of alternative food products by saying that the food and beverage industry is facing unprecedented challenges.

The world’s population is expected to grow to 9 billion by 2050, which will result in a 60% increase in demand for food. However, natural resources such as land, water and biodiversity are already under pressure. Rising temperatures and extreme weather events, the consequences of climate change, have shown that it can cause serious disruptions to global food supplies and, among other things, political instability.

The development of alternatives to animal products in the last 3-5 years has been very fast, and although the percentage of vegans and vegetarians in the population is currently small (5-7% depending on the country), their number is increasing. The main growth is seen in the increase of so-called flexitarians (omnivores who want to reduce their consumption of animal food due to the influence of the environment and replace it with plant-based alternatives).

Vene states that it is also inevitable that due to the rapid growth of the population, there will not be enough animal-sourced food and increasing its production is not sustainable and rational for the planet’s ecosystem. She points out that even Estonia is gradually moving towards plant-based alternatives and traditional dairy producers are adding more and more plant-based products to their portfolios.

What makes it possible to keep the price affordable?

Kristel Vene confirms that the technology for producing a milk alternative from sunflower seed press cakes developed by researchers at the Tallinn University of Technology has great advantages compared to existing technologies. Since they used raw materials without any pre-processing, which is very cheap, the product can be sold at an affordable price.

For example, oat/soy/almond etc. drinks are produced from pre-separated protein, the separation process is very energy-intensive and in addition, manufacturers depend on the availability of raw materials from third parties who separate the protein and thus are under strong price pressure.

Letofin owns the entire production chain, from the growing to the press technology, and understanding the processes taking place in the chain gives a significant competitive advantage.

Industrial livestock production accounts for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and agriculture is responsible for 75% of global deforestation. One company cannot solve the problems of the food system, but every contribution to making it more sustainable is a step towards a better future.

“We will be proud when science-based, tasty, wholesome, cheap and, most importantly, safe foods developed with our help reach the market. We have already developed such products for Letofin AS, and we are helping to further develop them until we reach the peak of sunflower seed science together with our partner,” says Kristel Vene.

This article was funded by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council and was originally published by Tallinn University of Technology.

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