A conversation with food expert Jimmy Ekvall

Experts around the world have been working on developing solutions and identifying alternatives to nutritional sources to combat food scarcity amid a climate crisis and growing population. Pulses have increasingly become a viable option for enhancing food security and nutrition due to their high protein (and even iron!) content. To promote and create awareness about their nutritional benefits and low carbon footprint, the United Nations has designated 10 February as World Pulses Day. 

"What can we do with the starch in pulse flours? Can we make the fibers more water-soluble? There are so many questions that we have and put to test here at Caldic.”

Caldic not only supports this initiative but also has a range of food technologists and experts who are constantly working to find sustainable alternative solutions to ingredients. One such expert is Jimmy Ekvall, an Innovation Manager at Caldic Nordics backed with a Ph.D. and a post-doctorate in Food Chemistry from universities in Sweden, who frequently experiments with pulses and proteins. 

With over 15+ years of experience working with a wide range of ingredients, Jimmy, has spent a decade at Caldic identifying suitable plant-based alternatives, such as meat analogs, for our customers to work with. Along with his colleague Magnus Nilsson, a Product Developer, he creates and tests formulations, and researches ways to isolate proteins from pulses and other plant-based sources. Jimmy took some time out from his busy schedule and shared his work with pulses, proteins, and the challenges that lie in working with proteins. 

Jimmy explains that his work largely revolves around figuring out how ingredients work with different applications, and the properties such as stability, mouthfeel, taste, shelf life, etc. that need to be considered to fit the application. One of the projects he’s currently working on is achieving the right texture in vegan cheese to enhance organoleptic characteristics. 

When it comes to pulses, Jimmy's focus has been on protein isolates and concentrates like his peers in the industry. He explains that the high content of starch and fibers in pulses hinders applications because they can store water even after continuous treatment, making it adversely affect the desired result. “For most of us,” he explains, “the aim has always been to isolate proteins to build the best possible texture. That might, however, change now. We’re losing a lot of nutrients when we isolate proteins, and the trend seems to be to look at the flours again.” 

This is why Jimmy has been testing out different types of pulse crops for the last few years. “We have been working with legumes for some years. The aim is to screen the products we have in our portfolio for different properties: like emulsification, gel-forming properties, how they dissolve, and how they operate in different situations so that we can get the desired technical functionality.” he explains, before adding, “We test different flours from peas, lentils, faba beans, and chickpeas. Sometimes, you can see easily identifiable textures – for instance, we once used a faba bean protein concentrate that behaved pretty much like egg whites when we heated it and was a great substitute when we tried it in a Swedish quiche!” 

Again, working with these too comes with its own set of challenges – the texture being the main concern. “If you’re using whole flour, it is difficult to get any free-flowing water in the application,” he clarifies. Moreover, while working with pulse flour is a trend, most consumers in Europe are not used to the textures generated with whole pulse flour, and maintaining flavors is also an issue that many manufacturers struggle with. However, these challenges excite him: “What can we do with the starch in pulse flours? Can we make the fibers more water-soluble? Would It be possible to create new textures with inter-biopolymer complexes? There are so many questions that we have and put to test here at Caldic.”

Innovation Manager Jimmy Ekvall (left) in his lab with colleague Magnus Nilsson

What does he think about the UN Initiative? “Although I was not familiar with World Pulses Day, I think it’s a really good idea to highlight these fantastic food products that actually hold so much potential, and I hope more people appreciate how multi-faceted they are not only from a research point of view but also as a highly nutritious and delicious food group.”