Deep inside the General Mills research lab in Golden Valley, Minnesota, food technician Faith Perry mixes up the company’s new Larabar with a special ingredient that’s several thousand years old.
Tins arranged along one wall of the lab contain every ingredient you could squeeze in a snack, from rolled oats to marshmallows.
The one that gives the Larabar a new monicker – the ALT, for alternative protein – is the yellow pea powder that Perry adds to a mound of nuts, dates and brown rice syrup.
It’s a recipe that took two years to concoct.
“We went through a lot of prototypes,” says Perry, flattening the mixture into a metal pan.
“It was challenging to keep it simple. We used peas because they’re non-allergenic and have a low impact on flavour.”
Perry’s discovery doesn’t yet rival the company’s invention of the “puffing gun” in the 1930s, which inflated cereal pieces and gave birth to Cheerios.
But after years of peddling sugar, salt and fat, companies in the $1 trillion (R10 trillion) food industry are on a protein binge to capture the health-conscious consumers whose distaste for conventional packaged foods has resulted in anaemic growth for household staples like Kellogg’s cereals and Campbell’s soups.
It’s part of the reordering of the world’s food supply, thanks to shifting consumer tastes, Chinese demand and global warming.
There’s more maize in Canada, vineyards in Scotland – and a shortage of peas in North America.
Because General Mills was early to recognise the potential of plant protein, the Betty Crocker owner has stocked up from suppliers like Canada’s Alliance Grain Traders, creating a shortage that’s left rivals rushing to catch up.
How hot is this trend? Enough to attract investment from billionaires Bill Gates, Li Ka-Shing and Tom Steyer.
Enter pulses, a branch of the legume family that includes dried peas, beans, chickpeas and lentils and brings a health-food halo via protein without the fat and cholesterol that is associated with animal products.
Pulses come in a range of colours and sizes and can be eaten whole, ground into flours or separated into concentrated forms of their three main components: protein, fibre and starch.
They have more protein and fibre than wheat or rice, and provide B vitamins, iron and zinc.
They can help lower cholesterol and blood pressure.
And they’re better for the environment, returning nitrogen to the soil, reducing fertiliser use, and requiring a fraction of the land and water of animal proteins.
Like any fashionable item, pulses are in short supply.
Today, only a handful of companies worldwide have the facilities and technology needed to process large quantities of pea protein concentrates and flours.
Last year, supplies grew so tight that prices soared and orders simply could not be filled, according to industry consultant Henk Hoogenkamp, who has worked with proteins for the past 40 years.
“Ten years ago nobody was talking about pulses,” said Gordon Bacon, the chief executive of Pulse Canada, an industry association that represents growers and processors from the world’s biggest pulse-exporting country.
“The market now is very hot. We are introducing food companies to a new ingredient that’s as old as time.”
Pulses aren’t perfect – the dense proteins can harden the texture of foods, as the General Mills researchers discovered with the Larabar ALT, whose shelf life is about two months shorter than regular Larabars. And digesting pulses is not always easy.
“Some people have a bunch of bacteria just waiting to digest this in ways that are not pleasant,” Peter Jones, the director of the Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals at the University of Manitoba, said.
“But you do improve your tolerance over time.”
Ultimately though, what swayed the General Mills scientists who screened half a dozen alternatives to soy and dairy before settling on yellow peas was what pulses don’t bring to the table: no allergens or genetically modified organisms. – Matthew Boyle for Bloomberg