Seeds of possibility: why are the crops used in the Smart Protein project so promising?


Source: / Tatjana Baibakova

Four crops for the future – the Smart Protein project is creating the next generation of plant-based-food-alternatives.

by Lina Sommer

Legumes – which include lentils, chickpeas, and fava beans – are high in protein, packed with fibre, and rich in other nutrients such as iron, folate, and magnesium.¹ It’s little wonder then, that after a long decline in per-capita consumption, we are slowly rediscovering these little superfoods.² Not only can they play the role of a staple food in a healthy, well-balanced diet, but they offer a healthy and natural plant-based alternative to meat while putting less strain on the environment³ and reducing the consumption of animal-based products. Quinoa, on the other hand, has been rapidly gaining popularity over the last few years and rightly so: this pseudocereal is incredibly delicious and healthy. It contains all nine essential amino acids, which makes it a high-quality-protein source while also providing valuable nutrients such as magnesium, phosphorus, and B-vitamins.¹ ⁴

The Smart Protein project is exploring all four crops in order to develop delicious and nutritious plant-based-meat alternatives

For now, these four crops, especially the legumes, are usually produced in Asia, Africa, and North and South America, and imported to Europe.⁵ In the West, they are considered ‘Orphan Crops’, meaning that they are underdeveloped and under researched and therefore not cultivated according to modern agricultural methods.⁶ As such, yields are below their potential – which is something that the Smart Protein project wants to change.

“The selection of the four protein crops is based on the preliminary investigation by the previous Horizon 2020 project PROTEIN2FOOD”, said Dr Emanuele Zannini, Smart Protein Project Coordinator and one of the main contributors to the PROTEIN2FOOD project.

Despite their status as orphan crops, the four crops show high potential for growing in Europe as the climate changes. In fact, even under present climatic condition, production of these nutrition crops could be far higher.⁷

All crops show high potential to be grown in Europe

Quinoa, which is traditionally grown in South America in the Andean region, showed a high resistance to abiotic stress such as drought and saline soil and promises to be the most suitable crop for European cultivation of those that the PROTEIN2FOOD project looked at. Legumes also have high-yield prospects, especially in Northern Europe,⁷ while some varieties of fava beans are already well established in animal-feed production and others are experiencing an increased demand as a crop for human consumption.

Legumes can naturally nourish the soil and improve fertility

Fava beans are especially promising as they can be grown during both summer and winter.⁸ One of the advantages of fava beans is their ability to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere.⁸ Among legumes, fava beans are especially good at nitrogen fixation, which allows them to grow in low-nitrate soils and have a reduced need for nitrogen-based fertiliser. This process naturally nourishes the soil since some of the fixed nitrogen is absorbed into the soil and becomes available for adjoining and successive crops. It also improves soil fertility and water-holding capacity and loosens the soil, all of which essential for a rich harvest.⁹

Lentils are also nitrogen-fixers and have shown to be high yield when grown in crop-rotation with oats.¹⁰ Nitrogen fixation is also responsible for the high protein content of legumes, since nitrogen is an essential part of the amino acids that form protein.

Although all four of the Smart Protein crops show high potential for cultivation in Europe, there are still some unknowns that need to be investigated further in order to increase yields and make crop production more efficient and therefore attractive to farmers.

Technological properties make the four crops unique

Besides being well suited for European soil, some of the four crops have exciting additional technological benefits that make them the perfect fit for developing delicious and nutritious plant-based alternatives. A high-protein lentil milk has already been developed by the PROTEIN2FOOD project, scoring just as high as other milk alternatives in sensory tests, with about the same protein content as cow’s milk. Lentil protein isolate has also been used in a new infant formula that meets EU requirements and could potentially replace soya formula,¹⁰ while fava beans were found to be a great addition for protein-rich bread and pasta.¹¹

Chickpeas, the fourth crop, are already well known for their use in falafel, hummus, and curries. Besides holding their own in the kitchen, chickpeas impress with drought resistance and protein functionality. However, they are mainly used as whole beans. One of the goals of the Smart Protein project is to explore the possibilities of isolating chickpea protein and using this in delicious, high-protein plant-based meat alternatives.

As we can see, each of these four crops has various special properties and abilities in terms of nutrition, environmental impact, and technological qualities. This grants them a unique and important position in the search for new ways to shape our food system, to which the Smart Protein project is committed.



  1. The Good Food Institute: Plant Protein Primer. Available at:
  2. PROTEIN2FOOD (2016): D.4.1: Report on market trends of rich-protein foods at European and global levels. Available at:
  3. PROTEIN2FOOD (2016): D.4.1: Report on market trends of rich-protein foods at European and global levels. Available at:
  4. Harvard T.H Chan, School of Public Health: The Nutrition Source. Quinoa. Available at:
  5. Bundeszentrum für Ernährung: Hülsenfrüchte: Erzeugung. Available at:
  6. Mabhaudhi, T., Chimonyo, V.G.P., Hlahla, S. et al.(2019): Prospects of orphan crops in climate change. Planta 250, 695–708. Available at:
  7. Manners, R.; Varela-Ortega, C.; van Etten, J. (2020): Protein-rich legume and pseudo-cereal crop suitability under present and future European climates, European Journal of Agronomy 113, 125974, ISSN 1161-0301. Available at:
  8. PROTEIN2FOOD: Crop leaflets. Fava bean. Available at:,
  9. Sainju, U. M.; Ghimire, R.; Pradhan, G.P. (2020): Nitrogen Fertilization I: Impact on Crop, Soil, and Environment, DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.86028. Available at:
  10. PROTEIN2FOOD: Protein Crop Corner. Available at:
  11. PROTEIN2FOOD (2019): Deliverable 3.3 – Optimised processing conditions for protein-rich bakery products and extruded cereals and snacks. Project-Nr. 635727 Available at: