Roquette to open world’s biggest pea protein plant in Manitoba in 2019, says CEO: 'Demand absolutely outstrips supply’

Jean-Marc Gilson: "Demand [for high-quality pea protein] absolutely outstrips supply."

Roquette has made a bold move to solidify its leadership position in the pea protein market with a jaw-dropping CAD400m+ (US$306m+) investment to build the world’s biggest processing plant for the on-trend ingredient dedicated to (human) food & nutrition applications, in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba.

Construction of the giant facility – strategically located in Canada, which produces c.30% of the world’s peas - is set to begin in the second quarter of 2017, with production expected to begin in 2019. Upon completion, it is expected to employ around 150 people, mostly recruited locally, Jean-Marc Gilson, CEO of Roquette, told FoodNavigator-USA.

We’re very proud and excited to make this announcement. Consumers are interested in more sustainable sources of protein, and we’re seeing demand in every category from snacks, bars and sports nutrition products to weight management, senior and clinical nutrition products, beverages and meat analogs.”

You do your homework before spending this amount of money

Roquette, which manufactures pea protein in Vic-sur-Aisne, near Paris, announced a deal with US-based pea seed breeder and processor World Food Processing (WFP) in 2014 under which WFP would manufacture products for Roquette in Wisconsin under the latter's Nutralys brand.

However, the deal never got off the ground, with World Food Processing focusing on manufacturing its own products under the PURISPea brand (launched in the fall of 2014), and Roquette in turn choosing to build its own facility in Canada.

While the initial investment at Portage la Prairie is dedicated entirely to pea processing, Roquette is also looking at other plant-based proteins that could be produced at the facility much further down the line, although this would require additional investment and different equipment, said Gilson, who said the plant-based trend was here to stay.

“We have bought a very large piece of land and we think this is the beginning of a much larger story. You do your homework before spending this amount of money and we are convinced this is a sustainable trend. There’s a huge growth opportunity in vegetable proteins, more sustainable sources of protein, and there is a tremendous need right now for high-quality pea protein, because demand absolutely outstrips supply.”

There are no immediate plans to offer organic pea protein from the plant, but that could change if customers start asking for it, he said. “There’s probably not enough supply to do it at scale right now but if demand really grows we’re happy to do it.”

Flavor and taste challenges

Asked whether the profitability of the enterprise was contingent upon finding high-value markets for co-products of pea-protein production, notably starch, he said: “We’re not hugely concerned [about this], there is demand for pea starch in a variety of markets, not just China [where some pea protein manufacturers sell pea starch to make glass noodles and other foods]. We also have the technology to further process pea starch into sugars and maltodextrins and other things."

Pea protein, meanwhile, is being sold into the animal feed industry, but attracted a far higher price in added value food applications, he said, noting that the quality of products in this space will continue to improve as taste issues are tackled. "Today you see prices range from $1/kg to $15/kg."

Asked whether Roquette was focused on masking unwanted flavors or colors, or developing technologies to strip them out of pea protein isolate altogether, he said: “Both have a place, although I can’t talk too much about that, but what you will see is a wider range of different pea protein products for different customer needs.”

Plant vs animal protein pricing

Pea protein’s vegan, non-GMO and ‘green’ credentials are particularly attractive to formulators - along with the fact it’s not a major allergen; while its high digestibility, functional benefits (high solubility/low viscosity), and well-balanced amino acid profile is also appealing from a nutritional perspective.

As a result, Roquette is one of several firms which has expanded its pea protein capacity in recent years, along with NutriPea, Cosucra, Axiom Foods, World Food Processing (which announced a significant expansion at its Turtle Lake, WI facility in April) and several Chinese players.

Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA last year about the plant protein market, Alan Rillorta, director of branded ingredient sales at AIDP, said the fact that US demand for plant-based proteins continued to grow despite falling dairy protein prices demonstrated that manufacturers were making strategic, not purely tactical (price-led) decisions, about which proteins to choose.

“What’s interesting is that the price of dairy proteins has come down a lot, so whey protein is now within striking distance of these rice and pea proteins, but I am still getting a huge amount of inquiries about plant proteins."

Pea is definitely the most popular right now

He added:  “Pea is definitely the most popular right now whereas two-to-three years ago rice was stronger. Pea used to be the same price as rice if not a little bit more, whereas now it’s come down in cost and has the cost advantage and the PDCAAS [Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score – a measure of protein quality] advantage – it has a better amino acid profile (click HERE to read more on measuring protein quality). It's also perceived to be cleaner by some buyers owing to concerns about heavy metals.

“There are other proteins coming onto the market now but some of them are four to five times as expensive, so you can see why pea is picking up.

“Pea protein applications are also the rise, from [dairy-replacement] beverages such as Ripple to meat analogs such as Beyond Meat, so the technology is getting better and we are breaking down barriers; it’s not just going into bars and protein powders."

Tyler Lorenzen, CEO of World Food Processing, said the company used a proprietary process to remove 'off' notes, but had also focused on breeding seeds with a blander taste, such that PURISPea was gaining traction in everything from ready to mix and ready to drink beverages, to cereals, bars, snacks and meat analogs.

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