Deep inside the General Mills Inc. 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 moniker -- 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 flavor."
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 food industry are on a protein binge to capture the health-conscious consumers whose distaste for conventional packaged foods has resulted in anemic 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 corn in Canada, vineyards in Scotland -- and a shortage of peas in North America.
Because General Mills was early to recognize the potential of plant protein, the Betty Crocker owner has stocked up from suppliers like Canada’s Alliance Grain Traders Inc., 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.
"Americans are gobbling up protein like it’s their last days," said Kantha Shelke, principal at food science researcher Corvus Blue in Chicago. "Protein is the new black."
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 associated with animal products. Traditionally sold only in the health-food aisle, they have found their way into Newman’s Own pretzels, Barilla pasta, Post cereal, even Triscuit crackers.