“A PhD is the perfect opportunity for personal development”

If you are going to fractionate plant proteins, you begin by asking yourself what functionalities you want. Only then can you decide what processing steps to take. This is TiFN PhD fellow, Remco Kornet’s, advice for food manufacturers. On Friday November 26, 2021, at Wageningen University & Research, Kornet successfully defended his thesis on tailor-made fractionation of pea protein.

It was during an internship, at FrieslandCampina, that Kornet learned that research can be fun. “My assignment was to find out why processes ran in particular ways, something I really enjoyed,” says the young scientist, who also holds a Bachelor and Master in Food Technology at HAS Den Bosch and Wageningen University respectively. When a vacancy for a PhD at TiFN came up, on the fractionation of pea protein, he didn’t think twice. “Plant-based proteins are the future, and I felt I wanted to contribute to such a key part of our food future.”

Plant-based burgers
Vegan burgers and other plant-based products are increasingly popular in the Netherlands and other European countries. “Manufacturers are processing protein isolates into these products,” says Kornet. “But it takes a large number of water- and energy-consuming processing steps to do so; steps that often come at the expense of, for example, the protein’s foaming and gelling capacities.”

Tailored fractionation
Kornet investigated whether mild processing would offer a promising alternative and the answer was positive. “We need to move towards tailored fractionation of pea and other sustainable proteins, because often we process more extensively than needed,” he explains.

“This means you must decide your desired functionalities in advance, and design your process accordingly. If you want your protein to have gelling qualities, mild fractionation (by dissolving your raw material in water and separating the proteins from the insoluble components) will do. There is no need to further purify the fractions via pH treatment. “Such treatments are common practice in the production of plant-based proteins but can have a negative effect on protein functionality,” the young scientist stresses.

Mild fractionation can result in less-desirable outcomes, such as off-flavours or anti-nutritional components. “But there are technical solutions available, for example by fermentation or adding enzymes.”

Kornet looks back warmly on his time as a TiFN PhD fellow. “The work environment offers one the opportunity for personal development, and to dive deeply into things that interest you,” he says. “I’ve shared wonderful moments with my colleagues and done interesting courses, for example on the coaching of students, complete with role playing. This was of great practical value to me as, during my PhD, I supervised ten different students.”

The research also brought him valuable insight into project management. “In some periods, I was working on four projects at the same time, which is about the limit that one can directly ‘manage’. But it makes a great difference if you go into meetings well-prepared, know your goals and have a clear plan,” he explains. Moreover, especially in the beginning, you need courage and persistence, the scientist adds. “You are investing a lot of time in a project which you don’t know yet if it will be successful.”

Beyond Meat
Kornet has already found an interesting job: In January 2022 he will start as an Innovation Scientist at Beyond Meat. “I am sure the knowledge and skills I developed in my PhD made a key difference during my interviews.”

Want to know more about Kornet’s work? Click here for the thesis.