Infamous for rotting our teeth and making us fat, sugar beets might turning over a healthy new leaf. A scientist from Zeist, the Netherlands, has found a way to turn beet waste into a sustainable source of protein.
In the Netherlands, the sugar beet is the main supplier of everybody's favorite source of calories, but it's also a useful tool for scaring small children into cleaning their plates. "Stop your whining and eat your broccoli," our parents would say. "This is a picnic compared to the tulip bulbs and sugar beets your gran was made to eat during the Dutch Famine of 1944."
But the sugar beet might soon be able to shake off its shabby, unhealthy image. After 70 years, the sugar beet is back on the menu—but this time it's the leaves we'll be biting into.
I called Peter Geerdink, a food scientist at the research institute TNO in Zeist, to ask him about his recent invention of a new meat subtitute: a protein called "rubisco," which is extracted from the leaves of sugar beets. There's a huge amount of these at hand, as the Netherlands produces about 11 billion pounds of beets every year, amounting to 3 million tons of leaves. In the past, the leaves were considered to be agricultural waste and left behind on the fields. "A terrible waste of such valuable material," says Geerdink.
The Dutch government commissioned Geerdink to find a way to better cope with our ever-growing waste pile. His research led to the discovery of a renewable "super protein," which will make a good substitute for unsustainable proteins such as meat, milk, and soy. This is an increasingly urgent matter, as the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization calculated last year that worldwide meat demands are projected to double by the year 2050.
"The beet leaves are pressed until a green juice is released, which is then filtered and converted into a white protein powder by a number of processes," Geerdink tells me. "The protein is highly functional, which means that it can be processed in many ways. It can be used as a substitute for soy in veggie burgers, for example. But I've also made delicious cookies with it."
Most importantly, what does it taste like? "There's not much flavor to the protein itself," Geerdink says. "You'll have to add aromas to give a burger its meaty flavor. But the protein adds a texture to veggie burgers that is lacking with soy, and which makes for a much beefier bite."
The protein is vegan-friendly, and Geedink claims that it's just as versatile as a chicken's egg. On top of that, the stuff has more nutritional value than bulk proteins such as soy, and can also be safely consumed by people with a gluten allergy.
But to say we're dealing with a new superfood would be going too far, says Geerdink. "We are actually trying to stay away from the hype." He thinks that, for starters, the protein could be interesting for people with gastrointestinal problems (such as the elderly or people suffering from bowel diseases), since the protein is remarkably easy to digest. "But it'll be a few years before we see it cropping up in the supermarkets."
But there's more to the Dutch sugar beet than just veggie burgers. As of October 1, 2017, the present European sugar quota will come to an end, which means that the minimum price for sugar beets will disappear and production will no longer be restricted. Currently, the Netherlands grows about 173,000 acres of sugar beets every year, which makes up about 5 percent of all agricultural land. According to the Wageningen University and Research Centre, this could increase to 14 percent in the years to come. This will translate into a lot of additional agricultural waste, and thus a golden opportunity for rubisco.
I ask Geerdink if he sees a potential client in the Dutch livestock industry, as it annually imports about 2.1 million tons of soybeans to feed its animals. In the past, beet leaves were used as animal fodder, but as increasing amounts of meat and milk had to be produced, the leaves were found lacking protein. "The protein content in soy is much higher," says Geerdink. "Also, soy is incredibly cheap—there's no way to compete with that. I fear that, for now, the rainforest will remain a victim to the livestock industry."
Still, the beet is a potential moneymaker. Indeed, there is much more to be gotten from it than protein alone; raw materials used in detergents and cement, for example, can be extracted from the pulp. In fact, basically anything that can be made with fossil fuels can be made with sugar, including bioplastics and biofuels. (About 10 percent of all American car fuel comes from ethanol extracted from sugar.) With the end of the sugar quota on the horizon, many Dutch companies are playing to these possible markets.
What about the sugar beets itself? Will we be stuffing ourselves with those any time soon? Geerdink doubts that the sugar beet is suitable for human consumption in terms of its nutritional value. After all, it's not what the beet was cultivated for (even though it's been known to appear in the kitchen, and some people have even turned it into an excellent wine).
"During the Dutch Famine, we ate sugar beets because there was a great shortage of calories," Geerdink says. 'Nowadays, lack of calories is hardly the problem."