Growing up with a nonagricultural background, Rachel Mitacek was always curious about how food made it to her plate. When she began applying to colleges, she knew she wanted to work with food, but said she didn’t have the culinary skills to be a chef and wanted to work in a field with more science. This desire soon led her to find her passion.

“I discovered food science and immediately fell in love,” she said. 

Ms. Mitacek began working in a meat muscle biology lab as an undergraduate student at Oklahoma State University. She quickly became passionate about the field and pursued a master’s degree at the same program. During that time, however, she also interned on a project working with plant proteins for use in acidic beverages, and was fascinated with how versatile the ingredients are and how small changes to these proteins could impact the functionality and quality of food products. 

“Therefore, I pursued a doctoral degree studying various novel plant proteins to understand how their structure influences nutritional quality and functionality for different foods,” she said. “After my doctoral studies I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in the industry as I really enjoy studying and commercializing new protein ingredients and being able to utilize them in various food applications.”

Ms. Mitacek joined MGP Ingredients as a senior scientist in April 2022, bringing a wealth of research in traditional meat and plant proteins, as well as work with novel plant proteins used in meat and dairy substitutes. She is currently studying for her PhD in food science at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. At the university’s Plant Protein Innovation Center, Ms. Mitacek is researching protein extraction optimization as well as the structural and functional characteristics of emerging plant proteins.

What are the biggest benefits plant proteins can provide to a formulation? 

Incorporating plant proteins into formulations has so many benefits. Some of the obvious benefits are increased protein content for nutritional value and satiety. However, plant proteins are wonderful to formulate with because even when used in small amounts, they can impart functional properties. Plant proteins are able to provide emulsification, foaming, gelling as well as water and oil binding properties. Therefore, many product developers can replace some of their functional ingredients by formulating with plant proteins.

What plant protein sources are best suited for baking applications? Which proteins are emerging in popularity? 

Wheat protein is the “gold standard” for baking. The viscoelastic property and ability to form film and entrap air makes wheat protein unique and hard to replace with other plant proteins in baking. The quality of protein in wheat influences how bakers handle the dough and affects the appearance, volume and texture of bakery items. Some plant proteins that are emerging in popularity are chickpea, hemp heart, canola, lupin, sunflower and potato.  

When adding plant proteins to a baked good, what are the formulation challenges bakers may encounter? 

Formulating with plant proteins as an alternative to wheat poses many challenges in baked product quality as they can interfere with the gluten matrix formation by decreasing processing abilities and entrapment of leavening gases, hence, negatively impacting product texture and volume. These processing and quality challenges can be overcome by incorporating wheat proteins such as vital wheat gluten or wheat protein isolates. Using pulse or alternative plant proteins typically imparts beany or earthy flavors to baked goods. In addition, high-protein formulations tend to be more dense, chewy and heavy in texture. Therefore, ensuring that the formulations are balanced can achieve desired texture and quality of baked products. 

What must bakers account for when blending wheat protein with other plant protein sources?

The most challenging aspect of blending other protein sources in baking is the off-aroma and flavor as well as how they impact dough handling since they don’t have the functionality of wheat. When blending plant protein with wheat protein or flour, the machineability of the dough may be impacted and cause issues with mixing and sheeting. Furthermore, a high amount of plant proteins may disrupt wheat protein hydration and formation of the gluten network, leading to undesirable texture, decreased cohesiveness and a dry finished product. Furthermore, adding a protein isolate or concentrate will increase the protein content and free amino acids, which can subsequently increase browning in baked products. Additionally, when looking at blending wheat and plant proteins, bakers should select proteins that have a complementary amino acid profile to wheat to improve nutritional quality.

How can plant proteins be made more palatable to consumers who may not like their taste? 

The flavor of plant proteins is inherent to the crop and is impacted by many factors such as source, storage, crop age and processing techniques. Unfortunately, many consumers find plant proteins to have undesirable flavor. Plant breeders and scientists have spent a lot of time understanding the factors that impact flavors and have found growing and processing conditions that provide the cleanest flavor. Many emerging plant proteins are currently being studied in the same manner as soy and wheat to enhance the palatability of these new ingredients. In the meantime, plant proteins can be made more palatable by combining them with complementary and “covering” flavors, for example, combining a plant protein described as “earthy” with a creamier flavor profile, such as chocolate, instead of something acidic like lemon. Working with a flavor company is highly recommended as they can help provide complementary flavors and maskers depending on the type of plant protein and formulation. Additionally, caution should be used with hydrolyzed protein ingredients as they tend to be more bitter.

What plant protein products do you offer and what do they contribute to baked goods?

MGP offers six different Arise wheat protein isolates that provide unique elasticity and extensibility for dough strengthening or relaxing. These wheat protein isolates range from 85% to 90% protein (dry basis) and have been low FODMAP certified by Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, meaning they provide digestion benefits. Arise wheat protein isolates are highly functional and provide enhanced dough machinability, processing, water absorption and overall quality of baked goods. Additionally, Arise has been shown to increase shelf life in flour tortillas, improve the quality of sheeted pastry, partially replace eggs in chemically leavened products and reduce fat absorption in cake donuts. Arise also has the ability to replace chemical reducing agents/dough relaxers and enzymes used in commercial baking, providing a clean label solution.