Plant-based proteins

The food innovation melting pot

Over three decades, the DIL Deutsches Institut für Lebensmitteltechnik (German Institute of Food Technologies) has established itself as an important element of the international food industry. From research on cutting-edge topics such as future proteins to the development and production of proprietary process solutions, the DIL unites academia and industry in the common pursuit of more efficient and sustainable value chains. In early 2021, it formed a strategic partnership with Bühler. Our customers benefit from this close collaboration.

  

The DIL is embedded in the rural and idyllic western region around the town of Quakenbrück in the German state of Lower Saxony. As tranquil and slow-paced this town may seem at first glance, it is also home to the DIL’s state-of-the-art Food Science & Technology Campus stretching across an expanse of 9,000 square meters. Over 200 employees work at its research and production facilities, built to the highest standards. “The DIL has grown rapidly in recent years. We are very proud of our role at the intersection between research and industrial production in the food industry, and we are also highly aware of our responsibility. Especially at the current time, when the agricultural industry and downstream food processing are playing a central role in the important sustainability and climate debate,” says Dr. Volker Heinz, Director of the DIL. 

 

Dr. Volker Heinz, Director of the DIL Dr. Volker Heinz, Director of the DIL

Its name may sound very official, but the DIL is actually 100 percent independent and keeps pace with private sectors. “We operate in four business areas: product innovation, process technology, food safety, and the Center of Food Physics. Our research areas are divided into bioeconomy, structure and functionality, protein technology, robotics, and process analytics,” Heinz explains. This unique composition enables the institute to generate new knowledge in food production and processing and channel the acquired knowledge into industrial processes. “We are integrated into around 50 research partnerships at national and international level. With over 190 partners in the industrial sector, we are constantly exchanging new findings and receiving important impetus from industry that we, in turn, incorporate into our research. This exciting dynamic is what really fascinates me about working at the DIL, because it creates a continuous regenerative cycle of innovation.”

Christoph Vogel can only confirm this. As Head of the Proteins & Ingredients Market Segment at Bühler, he works in close contact with the institute. “The DIL has been an excellent platform for the food industry to develop future-oriented solutions. The modern laboratories combined with profound knowledge also help our customers to overcome the challenges of modern food production,” he says. “The DIL in Lower Saxony is at the center of the meat industry, which now has a wonderful opportunity to set itself apart. At the DIL, our customers can develop their innovative products with the latest Bühler technology and produce trial batches under food grade conditions. If the product is successful, the customer doesn’t have any scale-up risk and we can build and commission the entire plant together.”

We are proud of our role at the intersection between research and industrial production in the food industry, and we are also very aware of our responsibility.

Dr. Volker Heinz, Director of the DIL

Unique in Europe

Dr. Volker Lammers, Head of Process Engineering at the DIL, is in his element in the laboratories. With his colleague Dr. Marie-Christin Baune, Food Process Engineer Scientific Associate at the DIL, they analyze the structure of a pea-based extruded meat substitute. “Alternative and more sustainable protein sources are certainly the hottest topic at present. In our heterogeneous team of engineers, scientists, technicians, and extrusion specialists, we cover the entire spectrum of process engineering – from basic research to the process of transferring it into solutions with industrial applications,” he says. “We continue where traditional research at universities stops. From start-ups to mediumsized businesses and international heavyweights, we help players to optimize processes, improve products, and develop new food products.”

 

Dr. Volker Lammers, Head of Process Engineering at the DIL

The DIL’s Center for Proteins of the Future, which opened in August 2021 in collaboration with Bühler, plays a central role in this. Ultimately, it’s the applicability of an innovation that determines its success or failure. “With the new extrusion facility, we have a unique set-up in Europe that allows us to test industrial processes,” says Lammers. Thanks to the new PolyCool 1000 cooling die, Lammers’ team is able to process up to 1,000 kilograms of textured proteins per hour. Such capacities, coupled with expertise at the institute, are in demand beyond the country’s borders, especially in the booming meat substitutes business. 

 

“The DIL has been researching process technology for plant-based proteins for over 10 years. We see two essential prerequisites for their lasting success. First, we need to use technology to make good products that consumers like and value. We have made a great deal of progress in this area in recent years. Second, price is a decisive factor when it comes to product selection. Thanks to the steady increase in efficiency, the sector is rapidly catching up with traditional meat processing,” says Lammers, before heading to a meeting with a local sausage producer who wants to expand his range with plant-based alternatives together with the DIL.

With the new extrusion facility, we have a unique set-up in Europe that allows us to test industrial processes.

Dr. Volker Lammers , Head of Process Engineering at the DIL

The hunt for new protein sources

For Marie-Christin Baune, the balance between research and application is the spice of life: “I’m involved mainly in research projects on alternative proteins. One exciting project is RaPEQ (rapeseed as a native source of high-quality protein for human consumption). Once the oil has been pressed, the press cake is produced, which is currently used only as animal feed. It contains canola protein, which has an excellent amino acid profile and would be beneficial to humans. Since rapeseed has a somewhat bittersweet aftertaste, solutions are being sought in the breeding sector. At the same time we are researching the process of combining rapeseed protein with other protein sources to determine the mixing ratio that allows the rapeseed taste to become prominent again,” says Baune.

The DIL is pursuing a different approach to research in cooperation with an aroma producer. Here, research is underway to find masking agents that can trump the bitter taste.

 

Volker Lammers and Marie-Christin Baune see enormous potential in plant-based meat alternatives. Volker Lammers and Marie-Christin Baune see enormous potential in plant-based meat alternatives.

A classic cross-disciplinary project is ‘ProFuture’ involving 40 partners within the EU’s Horizon 2020 funding program. Baune and her team are conducting an important study on microalgae as a protein source: “On the one hand, we are aiming for more sustainable algae cultivation through more efficient process solutions, for example, by feeding CO₂ byproducts into the photobioreactor. In the classical photosynthesis process, the algae are embedded in a tube system and grow due to sunlight and carbon dioxide. On the other hand, we are carrying out research at the DIL together with our partners on protein isolation from algae as well as general use of algae as nutrition,” explains Baune. The advantages are obvious. The land requirement is minimal compared to the agricultural setting, and certain types of algae can grow in processed wastewater or sea-water and therefore do not require fresh water. “In terms of photosynthetic yield, and accordingly with regards to biomass yield, algae grow much quicker than normal plants. Under good climatic conditions, such as those found in the project in Portugal, algae can be cultivated and harvested in reactors throughout the year,” Baune explains.

 

Thanks to a protein content of over 40 percent, polyunsaturated fatty acids and the formation of vitamin B12, which is not found in plant-based foods and is otherwise only available to vegans in supplements, algae have the potential to make a significant contribution to sustainable nutrition for up to 10 billion people in 2050. “We are currently about halfway through the four-year funding program. As a sponsor, the EU would like to see a fast transfer of research to the market,” says Baune. Together with partners in the food industry, the DIL is now developing products like vegan sausage, soup, pasta, vegetable creams, sports nutrition, and baked goods.

“The DIL is involved from research to market, including upscaling, the logistics chain, and life cycle assessment. This versatility and immersion of ideas, some of which are quite uncommon, together with start-ups is what excites me so much in my work,” Baune explains.

This versatility and immersion of ideas, some of which are quite uncommon, together with working with start-ups, is what excites me so much in my work.

Dr. Marie-Christin Baune, Food Process Engineer Scientific Associate at DIL

The DIL offers customers to produce trial batches under food grade conditions. The DIL offers customers to produce trial batches under food grade conditions.
Volker Lammers and Marie-Christin Baune conduct research on industrial scale with the Bühler extruder. Volker Lammers and Marie-Christin Baune conduct research on industrial scale with the Bühler extruder.

Sustaining momentum

Since the interdependent generation and transfer of knowledge are deeply anchored in the institute’s DNA, it is no wonder that the next milestone is already established. At its newly established Food Science and Technology Campus Artland, students from around the world will be starting their master’s degree in Food Process and Product Engineering in the winter semester 2022/23. For Clemens Hollah, Head of the Director’s Office at the DIL, this step is a matter of course: “Our food system is undergoing an incredibly dynamic process of transformation. To surmount the global challenges together, we need to drive innovation and train and develop skilled workers. With this degree program, we are promoting our region as a hub for food innovation and expanding our network.”

So, where will the journey take the institute next? “When I started here in 2016, we had approximately 60 employees with around 10 research projects. We now have more than 200 employees, and about 50 projects are running in parallel in the scientific sphere. In addition, there is contract research, such as the projects we carry out with Bühler,” says Heinz. “This growth is due to the fact that we are always working at the interface between research and industrial production. We don’t have to look at the food system in terms of partitioned segments. We can relate to it as a whole system that requires continuous innovation. I can’t imagine a more exciting job. After all, the increasing push from society and business for greater food sector innovation will definitely sustain this momentum.”

To surmount the global challenges together, we need to drive innovation and train and develop skilled workers.

Clemens Hollah, Head of the Director’s Office at DIL

Clemens Hollah, Head of the Director’s Office at DIL

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