Hummus – a world-famous mashed chickpea dish – is one of the most popular foods in Israel, and one whose true origins are hotly debated across the Middle East. It is said that this foodstuff was first made in Egypt, where there are recipes dating back as far as the 13th century.
Eight centuries later, an Israeli physician and nutrition expert at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment in Rehovot has found a revolutionary new way to use these humble legumes that is likely to benefit the whole world.
Prof. Ram Reifen, director of the research center for nutrigenomics and functional foods at the faculty’s School of Nutritional Sciences and Institute of Biochemistry, Food Science and Nutrition, has developed a patented vegetable protein that can replace many animal products.
Cattle, sheep and other farm animals consume much energy and facilitate global warming. Beef and other foods raise blood cholesterol and pose threats to the cardiovascular system, while a growing number of people are turning to vegetarianism and even veganism.
Public awareness of leading a healthier lifestyle, including the consumption of sustainable and non-processed foods has increased in recent years, leading to a greater demand for nutrition-based plant protein. This change in eating patterns requires new products that will substitute for products like meat and cheese but have similar nutritional value – and do not contain substances such as gluten, lactose, allergens and the like.
Reifen, a Hebrew University Medical Faculty graduate, pediatrician and an expert in children’s nutrition and digestive diseases, has devoted more than 15 years of research to this field. He created ChickP, a powder comprised of 60% to 90% from which milk- and meat-substitutes will be manufactured, along with high-protein energy snacks, beverages and more. ChickP is also a safe and better alternative to soy protein – which contains phytoestrogens – and peas, both of which trigger allergic reactions in many people. Concentrated chickpea protein can actually lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
There are several benefits to using chickpea derivatives, specifically that the product has no hormones and is not genetically engineered. In addition, its taste does not need to be masked by harmful sugar or salt, and a wide variety of tastes can be added to it. Chickpeas also grow in semi-arid regions, so the legume can be produced in Israel’s Negev. They require very little fertilization and make an excellent rotation plant to maintain the quality of the soil.
Until now, no chickpea powder with a concentration of up to 90% protein has been available for industrial use. Since the global market for plant proteins is expected to reach more than $10 billion by 2020, ChickP is addressing a huge market and offers an innovative solution to the need and demand for a wider range of high-quality, safe plant protein ingredients.
“We believe that during the next five years, ChickP’s revenues will reach $300 million. Samples of our product are now under examination and evaluation in various food companies, with applications in meat substitutes, dairy alternatives, beverages, pastries, snacks, bars and more,” noted Reifen.
By-products created during the making of the protein powder include prebiotics, boutique oil and other nutritional supplements for the food, human and animal industries, thus enabling the production process to benefit from all the essential nutritional qualities found in the chickpeas. Finally, chickpeas also contain elements that prevent wrinkling of the skin and could be used to develop ointments for skin care.
For his breakthrough, Reifen will receive, during the university’s board of governors meetings, a Kaye Innovation Award. Prominent United Kingdom pharmaceutical industrialist, Isaac Kaye, has given the awards annually since 1994. He established them to encourage Hebrew University faculty, staff and students to develop innovative methods and inventions with good commercial potential benefiting the university and society.