Suiker Unie hitting the sweet spot with protein from beet leaves: 'We want to be a pioneer in this field'

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

©Suiker Unie
©Suiker Unie

Related tags plant protein Sugar beet

Suiker Unie, a Royal Cosun Company, officially took its green protein demo plant into operation last week when it started producing protein from sugar beet foliage.

The company, whose core business is focused on the development and sale of sugar and sugar specialities, said it is pioneering new extraction technology for plant protein by leveraging a ‘unique’ production process. The process was developed and patented by TNO, the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research and Suiker Unie’s parent company, Royal Cosum, has obtained an exclusive licence.

The first 100 kg of protein will be produced this year, with further scale-up in the pipeline, according to Paulus Kosters, senior protein programme manager at Cosun. “Our ambition now that the demo plant is up and running is to take the first large-scale production line into operation by 2022.”

An ‘important step’ in the protein transition

Suiker Unie noted that plant protein sources will be ‘essential’ if the food sector is to produce enough proteins to feed the growing world population, forecast to reach almost 10bn by 2050. Through the new demo plant, the company believes it has taken an ‘important step’ to contribute to the necessary protein transition.

The demo plant is utilising technology that makes it possible to extract protein from green plant leaves. It will initially extract protein from sugar beet foliage and later expand to include other plant leaves.

Suiker Unie noted every hectare of sugar beet produces between 20 and 30 tonnes of leaves, which contain 1-3% protein. This amount of foliage is therefore good for the production of between 180 and 280 kg of high-quality protein.

“A dark green juice is extracted from the leaves that we can refine and dry in a series of steps to produce a colourless, flavourless and odourless protein powder,”​ explained Kosters.

“The food industry can use this functional plant protein in countless applications, including meat substitutes, cakes, meringues, beverages, sauces and desserts.”

Getting ‘maximum value’ from crops

Significantly, innovation director Frank van Noord noted, the IP-protected process allows Cosun to produce plant proteins from part of the sugar beet that are currently a side-stream in agricultural production.

The plant is part of Cosun’s strategic programme to produce plant proteins, the innovation chief added. Suiker Unie acquired startup Green Protein in December 2018. Based in Wageningen, the company has developed a process to extract the RuBisCo protein from green leaves, such as sugar beet foliage.

“We want to be a pioneer in this field,”​ explained van Noord. “We have always worked to get the maximum value out of our crops. Our open innovation centre for alternative proteins, which Cosun has opened at Nieuw Prinsenland in Dinteloord, is a perfect example of this and we are inviting other parties to join us in the protein transition.”

Suiker Unie CEO Paul Mesters added that getting the maximum value from the sugar beet would enable the group to deliver enhanced return's to the cooperative group's farmer-owners. 

"We said to ourselves if we want to maximise the value of the sugar beet then we certainly also have to look at can we add value to the leaves.

"In Europe we mostly import protein and this could help to make Europe or the Netherlands protein neutral and that is where we see a business opportunity."

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