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Exploration of alternative plant sources for application in the food sector

Why this project?

There is a clear trend in the market demanding greater use of plant-based materials in daily food products. On the one hand, because consumers are choosing a healthier lifestyle and are always looking for new flavours and, on the other hand, because there is an increasing demand for authentic, local and recycled raw materials due to their sustainability aspects.  

This trend also has many social benefits when we move away from an agricultural system based on mono cultures and large volumes which is not very sustainable and yet very vulnerable. A high degree of biodiversity in agriculture also leads to greater diversity on our plates and all the nutritional benefits that go along with it.  

This creates a lot of product development opportunities for the food industry. But it is often a giant leap of faith. The new materials are not well known and their impact on product quality is difficult to predict. Companies that dare to take the leap generally use the ‘trial & error’ method when developing new products because the information they require is very fragmented, too superficial, non-existent or not publicly accessible. However, in academic circles (and others) there is a great deal known about - known and less well-known - alternative crops. It is really about collecting all the information in the correct manner and, when needed, adding missing info to develop products in a much more efficient and goal-oriented manner. 

Research approach 

CropExplore is a collective research project (type VIS-CO) in which actors in the agro-food chain want to inspire and motivate companies to start using new plant-based resources. Specifically, we want to reach this objective through:  

  • Carrying out an extensive preliminary research phase to explore and make an inventory of as many as possible known, under used and new plant-based raw materials.
  • Creating a knowledge matrix where existing and new knowledge about the nutritional, economic, agricultural and functional properties of an extensive list of plant-based raw materials and by-products are collected. The application possibilities for these raw materials will also be included.
  • Translating this knowledge matrix into an accessible and user-friendly online tool that contains all this information about the raw materials and that makes it possible to search for specific materials with specific properties.
  • Testing a selection of these raw materials in a range of basic products. The knowledge gained regarding the applicability of these raw materials in food products will also be made available in the online tool.
  • Validating the online tool by developing innovative products with new plant-based raw materials with companies from both the user group and others.
  • Identifying opportunities for farmers and gardeners to diversify their crops.

Target group and expected results

The project is first geared towards all processing companies that make food products based (in part) on interchangeable plant-based raw materials, such as producers of:  

  • Bread and bakery products 
  • Meat alternatives and hybrid meat products 
  • Dairy alternatives 
  • Vegetable- and fruit-based products 
  • Drinks  
  • Snacks and desserts 
  • Cattle feed 

Ingredient suppliers, farmers and gardeners are also included in the project's target group.  

The CropExplore project wants to create a treasure trove of available and new information in a knowledge matrix containing 150 well known and less well-known plant-based crops/ raw materials. The knowledge matrix will contain information about the nutritional value, agro-economic (cultivation properties, availability, etc.) and functional properties (reaction in water, gelatinisation behaviour, emulsifying capacity, etc.) and application possibilities of each crop and its derivatives. This knowledge matrix will be transformed into an online tool in which a specific crop can be selected or a search for a raw material that meets specific criteria can be done. This online tool will also be available to companies outside the user group at the end of the 3rd year.  

Project partners

Flanders’ FOOD manages and coordinates the project. Responsibility for the execution:  

  • The research group for Technology and Quality of Animal Products from KU Leuven, under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Engineer Ilse Fraeye  
  • The Laboratory for Grain and Animal Feed Technology from Ghent University, under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Filip van Bockstaele, engineer  
  • The Technology and Food Unit from the Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods Research. The project is under the supervision of Bart Van Droogenbroeck
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KU Leuven
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