The British “King of Cabbage” is turning to plant-based proteins

The search for sustainable sources of plant-based protein in the face of heightened concerns about global greenhouse gas emissions has drawn attention to the humble cabbage.

Naylor Farms, Europe’s largest cabbage producer by area, has developed a method for extracting protein from brassicas and is building a €38m plant in Lincolnshire, East Midlands, UK, funded by a loan from Dutch state-controlled investment unit Invest International.

The Dutch have allocated another EUR 500 million to Naylor Nutrition to expand its business thanks to a loan guaranteed by Exim Finance, a Dubai-based company.

While growth in plant-based meat production has slowed over the past year, the demand for foods that use plant-based proteins, including milk, snacks and health drinks, is expected to increase over the next few decades.

Most plant-based foods and beverages are based on soy, which has been linked to deforestation in Brazil, and peas, whose price has been volatile over the past few years due to drought and flooding in key growing regions.

Simon Naylor, a fourth-generation member of the family farm, said he was initially looking for a way to use the outer green cabbage leaves, which supermarkets didn’t want in their coleslaw. Four years of research and development together with Dutch scientists have resulted in a “cold-pressing” process producing protein, fiber and sweet umami syrup from cabbage.

Naylor's Farms
Naylor Farms, Europe’s largest cabbage producer by acreage © Gary Naylor

“Every year we threw away 35 percent of the crop,” said Naylor, known locally as “King of Cabbages.” He added: “There is a lot of excitement as everyone is looking for sustainable ingredients. Everyone is trying to limit the soy content in their products.”

The recent tripling of cabbage productivity in terms of yield per acre thanks to seed research has also meant that it can now produce an entire harvest of cabbage for use in protein instead of relying only on waste, increasing economies of scale. “Now it’s (economically) viable, not just having one plant that takes our cabbage trimmings,” he said.

With a protein content of about 1.8 g per 100 g of cabbage, this vegetable does not rank high on the list of protein-rich plants. Soybeans are about 36g, oats are 16g and rice is about 7g.

However, the cabbage is resilient and grows in many places, which increases the opportunities for operational expansion, Naylor said. He said farmers in Eastern Europe and Germany were looking for ways to use the cabbage in the face of declining consumption of sauerkraut there.

The plant is expected to start production at the end of the year or early 2024. Naylor said the tasteless protein and fiber could be used for meats and plant-based drinks, as well as bakery products. He said umami sauce was a substitute for soy sauce.

Alternative protein experts praised the development of a variety of plant-based proteins. “One thing about the plant-based product category is that most products use either soybeans or peas. Expanding the list of crops we use as ingredients is really good,” said Seren Kell, head of science and technology at the Good Food Institute’s alternative protein group. She added that the use of native crops in the country was also a positive development.

Projections vary, but plant-based proteins are expected to account for 6-22 percent of total protein needs, including meat, in 2030 there was insufficient production capacity for plant-based proteins.

“We are woefully behind schedule in manufacturing facilities if we have to meet this demand,” she said.

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