Meet the researcher: squeezing the protein out of plants with Alan Javier Hernandez Alvarez
01 March 2023
A career spent exploring the nutritional and health benefits of plant-based foods – along with an outsider’s perspective –has given Dr Alan Javier Hernandez Alvarez a unique insight into the challenges and opportunities facing the sector.
Name: Dr Alan Javier Hernandez Alvarez
Job title: Lecturer in Nutrition and Global Health
Organisation: University of Leeds
Sustainable protein specialism: Plant-based
A career spent exploring the nutritional and health benefits of plant-based foods – along with an outsider’s perspective – has given Dr Alan Javier Hernandez Alvarez a unique insight into the challenges and opportunities facing the sector.
Alan believes a collaboration between government, industry and academia in the UK could support the agricultural sector, make the most of raw ingredients, reduce dependence on imports and build a strong plant-based industry.
His interest in the field goes back to his time studying biochemical engineering at the Instituto Politécnico Nacional in his home country of Mexico, when he carried out a project examining bean proteins.
After furthering his studies with a PhD and a research internship at Spain’s Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, he spent time as a postdoctoral researcher with Agriculture and Agri-food Canada, where he used cutting-edge technology to examine the protein quality, technologies for protein extraction and health benefits of plant ingredients.
But it was a move to the UK to take up a position at the University of Leeds that enabled him to build his own research team.
“Leeds has a beautiful campus”, he says, recalling what first drew him to Britain. “But something I really liked is that while the Canadian plant-based market was really well developed, in the UK it was just developing when I got here. I thought there was a lot of potential here.”
Alan’s team looks into the nutritional and health effects of different plant-based ingredients, “tuning-up” protein extraction technologies and understanding the impact of processing on protein quality, saying this research could help introduce a wider variety of crops for use in plant-based foods, helping enable farmers to move away from monocropping.
Taking protein from plants
The team is also focused on the effectiveness of technologies such as microwaves, pulse electric fields and ultrasound to extract proteins from plants – techniques that are much less energy intensive than traditional methods such as heating and the use of chemicals.
Alan’s research provides insights into how these techniques can impact the functional properties of plant-based ingredients – such as whether they can be used as gelling agents to help stick food products together.
They also look into whether these methods have an impact on the presence of antinutritional factors – naturally occurring compounds that exist in plants to protect them from insects and other predators, which while harmless, can limit the digestibility of proteins.
He says the more these factors can be reduced, the more manufacturers will be able to produce protein-rich plant-based foods with enhanced digestibility.
Alan summarised much of this work, and that of international collaborators, in a book he recently edited to guide startups, established food manufacturers and others working in the field.
He is also involved in an Innovate UK research project looking into ways of extracting protein from agricultural byproducts, and he is using his expertise as a consultant for UK plant-based companies such as THIS, Meatless Farm and STARS.
But Alan believes, while the food industry is constantly making better and better products, there are missed opportunities in the UK.
Although the country has the raw ingredients needed for a dynamic plant-based industry, it lacks the industrial infrastructure to produce them at scale – with startups often importing protein isolates from the United States, Canada and China.
“I would be so excited if we could have a facility producing this in the UK,” he said. “What we really need here is a collaboration between government and industry to make this possible.”
He gives the example of companies producing oil from oilseeds, but using the byproducts as animal feed, whereas they could be processed as ingredients for sustainable proteins, providing huge benefits for British farmers.
Advice for new researchers
Alan says anyone interested in sustainable proteins should explore the free courses offered by GFI, as well as similar resources provided by the Institute of Food Technologists and the AOCS Protein Division in the United States.
He believes there is currently a lack of expertise around plant proteins in the UK, and although interest in the field is growing, there is a need for a hub bringing this work together.
Alan said: “Something I would like to see in the UK is a programme specifically focused on plant proteins, bringing together all the experts involved in the plant-based food world.
“We need to see more collaboration between academia, industry, government and the agricultural sector – these are the key players who will push forward the market.”
Are you interested in getting involved in the sustainable proteins field? Take a look at our resources or check out our science page.
If you’re a researcher:
- To find funding opportunities, check out our research funding database for grants from across the sector, and our research grants page, which showcases funding available from GFI.
- Explore our Advancing Solutions initiative, which highlights the main sustainable protein knowledge gaps, and subscribe to the collaborative researcher directory, which provides details of potential collaborators or supervisors with a stated interest in the field.
- Find out about research projects that have already been funded on our research grants tracker or our grantee web pages.
- Look out for monthly science seminars run through our GFIdeas community or use our company database to identify commercial partners.
If you’re a student:
- Find educational courses around the globe through our database.
- Sign up for our free online course introducing the science of sustainable proteins, explore our resource guide explaining what is available to students or newcomers to the space, and check out our careers board for the latest job opportunities in this emerging field.
- Interested in helping turn your university into a hotbed of sustainable protein innovation? Consider applying to join GFI’s Alt Protein Project initiative by 30 March.