Fava beans could be the new soy

Research suggests fava beans could be a source of plant protein—one that’s better for the environment than soy.

“Many consumers are crying out for alternatives to soy, a crop that places great strain on the environment,” says Iben Lykke Petersen, assistant professor in the University of Copenhagen’s food science department, and coauthor of the study in the journal Foods.

“This prompted us to find a method of processing fava beans in such a way that allows us to produce a concentrated protein powder. One of the advantages of fava beans is that they can be grown here, locally in Denmark. This is excellent news for the climate.”

Numerous farms in Brazil and Paraguay have cleared large tracts of forest to create space for soybean fields. This has had severe negative consequences for wildlife, biodiversity, and CO2 emissions.

Fava beans primarily grow in the Middle East, China, and Ethiopia.

“Another important factor is that, unlike fava beans, lots of soy is genetically modified to be able to tolerate Roundup, an herbicide. Within this context, many consumers are critical of soy’s environmental consequences,” explains Petersen.

To find an alternative to environmentally taxing soybean, the study’s researchers tested various crops, looking for those with the greatest potential as a protein powder, while also being able to be grown locally in Denmark. Fava beans outperformed lentils, amaranth, buckwheat, and quinoa.

Using a method called “wet fractionation,” the researchers succeeded in concentrating fava bean protein and removing substances that would otherwise inhibit the digestion of the protein. This allows the body to more readily absorb nutritious fava bean proteins.

“Wet fractionation is accomplished by milling beans into a flour, and then adding water and blending the mixture into a soup. Thereafter, it becomes easier for us to sort out the less beneficial substances and produce an optimized product,” explains Petersen.

“Our results demonstrate that this method significantly increases protein content. Furthermore, through our tests, we can see that this protein is nearly as readily digested as when we break down protein from animal products, such meat and eggs.”

The content and nutritional quality of a protein are one thing, but taste is another. Petersen explains that when fava beans are processed correctly, the proteins retain their naturally bright color, along with a neutral taste and good texture.

“Manufacturers prefer a product that is tasteless, has a neutral color, and a firm texture. Fava beans check each these boxes, unlike peas, which often have a very bitter aftertaste,” she says.

Source: University of Copenhagen