According to AgFunder’s most recent Agri-FoodTech Investing Report, global investment in innovative foods such as alternative and plant-based proteins doubled in 2019, from US$500 million in 2018 to US$1 billion.
While more and more companies are developing novel ways to feed a growing population healthy protein—and minimize environmental impact—others are turning to simple, low-tech solutions used side-by-side with natural ingredients.
“It’s a combination of science and art,” says Jitendra Sagili, Chief R&D Food & Technology Officer at Greenleaf Foods, which produces the plant-based protein brand Lightlife. “Our philosophy is to embrace all of the technologies but approach it in a culinary fashion. At the end of the day, it is food.”
Originally named “Tempeh Works,” Lightlife was founded in an old, converted car wash in 1979 and is now the largest U.S. manufacturer of tempeh, all Certified Organic and non-GMO. The company reported a 44 percent growth in sales this past year, and its tempeh is now sold in more than 18,500 retail stores nationwide.
Lightlife has embraced natural processes and low-tech systems to scale while eliminating synthetic ingredients from its supply chain. Tempeh, for example, is made by breaking down soybeans with bacteria through fermentation. The centuries-old process naturally transforms amino acids in soy—a complete protein—to become almost completely bioavailable. For eaters who may be hesitant to try plant-based eating because of digestive issues, Sagili notes, “fermentation unlocks the true potential of plant-based” using minimal ingredients.
Fermentation can also introduce more flavor varieties to plant-based proteins. Greenleaf’s Field Roast brand, for example, uses fermentation to create a mushroom extract with “unbelievable umami notes,” mimicking the meaty taste of animal products using natural processes rather than synthetic or chemical-based flavorings. This process can also give products a browner color that mimics beef, Sagili says.
Another simple yet key technology is extrusion, developed in the 1930s to produce dry pasta and cereal. The process is essentially a screw system inside of a barrel that uses heat, mechanical energy, pressure, and moisture to process raw ingredients into semi-solid products that retain moisture. It creates more malleable, meat-like, and texturized plant-based proteins like patties, nuggets, or grounds that resemble animal meat.
“Extrusion and fermentation completely changed the plant-based product lines,” Sagili tells Food Tank. This led to the Lightlife team thinking about how plant-based protein products don’t need to use a lot of ingredients to deliver great flavor and texture.
Choice ingredients can serve multiple purposes in building a cleaner supply chain. Starches, for example, not only provide better binding for a cooked product but normalize its color. In Lightlife’s plant-based chicken products, starch lightens the color to naturally mimic chicken meat.
Finding the perfect combination of low-tech solutions with the right ingredients and the right culinary techniques—such as cooking with dry heat to create reactionary flavors—is key, Sagili explains. And this can facilitate not only better taste and nutrition but minimize environmental impact.
“We leverage the science to do good, as opposed to being the hottest new thing,” says Adam Grogan, COO at Greenleaf Foods. The company’s owner Maple Leaf announced in 2019 that it was the first major food company to achieve carbon neutrality. The company owns its entire supply chain, investing in projects like wind energy, gas recovery for energy, and recycling programs with third-party auditors. Using artificial intelligence, they have also reduced their shipping miles by 50 percent.
When food companies consider technology, Grogan says, they should ask, “for what purpose?” Technology should be used to scale, to reduce environmental impact, and to enable natural, simpler ingredients, according to Grogan. “Beyond that? Technology for any other reason, I’m very skeptical.”
Lightlife aims to meet a rising consumer demand for clean, plant-forward diets with this balanced approach to technology, relying on natural ingredients and simple processes like fermentation and extrusion. And according to Grogan, companies in the plant-based sector that put consumer interest first are the ones that will succeed.
“We can’t lose sight of the fact that consumers continuously want cleaner, natural ingredients. Any technology that does not enable that for the consumer may have their day now, but long-term, I think it’s facing a lot of risk,” Grogan tells Food Tank.
“Consumers get nourished by food, not tech.”