Because of its ability to fix nitrogen from
the air and enrich the soil with this element, lucerne is the biggest
forage crop in the world, cultivated on around 32 million hectares.
Until now, lucerne has been pressed and dried to produce dry lucerne
plus a protein extract (PX), both of which were used in animal feed.
Now several years of research have demonstrated that it contains
a protein which could be of interest to far more lucrative markets.
Rubisco, as it is called, accounts for approximately 2% of the total
dry matter fraction of lucerne.
Rubisco helps plants to convert energy from the sun and could profitably
replace soya as a source of protein in food. At the moment, almost
80% of the plant proteins in food come from soya, but none of them
covers humans' nitrogen and amino acid requirements. By contrast,
Rubisco contains all the essential amino acids which humans need
and is closer to milk proteins. 'And production of plant proteins
is known to be infinitely more profitable than production of animal
proteins,' points out Olivier Pauwels from Alfa Laval France, 'since
the return is 10 to 100 times higher, depending on the plant.'
Rubisco also has foaming and emulsifying properties which could
be harnessed not only in food but also in cosmetics and detergents.
Finding new uses for lucerne
In response to lucerne's loss of competitiveness against rival
products (such as oil seed cakes) and to falling European subsidies,
the lucerne industry had to diversify. 'This is why we developed
an advanced technology for fractionation of lucerne, capable of
extracting Rubisco. At the time, the idea was to extract a marketable
fraction and to offer the byproduct in the animal feed industry,
our line of business,' explains Bernard Petin, manager of France
Luzerne and coordinator of the Fralupro project.
The project, which is supported by the European Union, began in
1997 when France Luzerne and its five partners set out to test the
technical and economic viability of the pilot process for large-scale
production. 'Moving on to the next stage posed a real scaling-up
problem,' recalls Charles Thémistocle from the Centre de
Valorisation des Glucides et des Produits Naturels, 'as the pilot
plants had to be adjusted to make them compatible with large-scale
In particular, the challenge was to work on a fresh juice rather
than on a protein extract, such as the grain protein produced from
soya. 'Technically, this meant working rapidly and continuously
to avoid all the metabolic reactions likely to occur in fresh juices,
particularly oxidation,' the project coordinator added. 'What is
more, although small-scale production of a juice containing less
than 0.5% insoluble matter is relatively easy, maintaining this
rate when the capacity is scaled up is by no means certain,' admits
Charles Thémistocle. 'It then becomes difficult to produce
a colourless and, above all, tasteless protein.'
The same scaling-up problems also apply to temperature control
of the preparation, its pH and the capacity of the installation
to adapt to a raw material with a dry matter content which fluctuates
widely, depending on the season and weather conditions.
Another imperative is to make the quantum leap from animal feed
to human food. As Olivier Pauwels says, 'It is not just a question
of extracting the raw materials, but also of keeping them wholesome
and digestible.' Care must also be taken to avoid extracting some
of the products in just a few minutes but leaving the rest for hours
in the installations, where there could be a risk of microbial contamination.
This example of European cooperation culminated in the construction
of a demonstration unit operating on the site of France Luzerne.
While the original pilot unit was able to produce 6 kg or 7 kg of
protein an hour, the new production unit manages between 35 kg and
50 kg in the same time. In the long term, the France Luzerne plant
could produce 1 200 tonnes of Rubisco a year, at almost the same
cost as soya. 'The extraction process is a complete innovation,
since it is the first to convert the plant directly into a protein
extract for human consumption,' Bernard Petin says proudly.
Major outlets will open up as soon as the food safety committees
give the go-ahead to put Rubisco on the market as a food ingredient.
Another attraction of this innovation, as the debate about genetically-modified
organisms continues, is that this ingredient is of clearly defined
composition and clearly identified origin - which is not always
the case with soya imported into Europe.
Alongside the technical aspects, the Fralupro project also provided
an opportunity to explore the potential markets for Rubisco, opening
the way to development of different industrial applications. In
the future, this new fractionation technology for lucerne could
be used to extract other plant proteins with high-value applications
in pharmaceuticals and cosmetics in particular.
Fractionation of lucerne juice to create nutritional and functional
protein ingredients for the food and non-food industry (Fralupro)
Union des Coopératives Agricoles de Déshydratation
Fax: +33- 3- 26 68 65 10
- France-Luzerne, Châlons-en-Champagne, France (coordinator)
- Centre de Valorisation des Glucides et Produits Naturels,
- Alfa Laval Separation AB, Tumba, Sweden
- ORFFA/Promosin Pectacon BV, Bunschoten, Netherlands
- Reckitt & Colman PLC, London, United Kingdom
- Celtest Ltd, Bangor, United Kingdom
Lucerne biscuits. The Rubisco in this
plant could be an attractive substitute for soya proteins in food.
It contains all the essential amino acids humans need and is closer
to milk proteins.