Food Navigator USA
Commercial quantities of highly functional, neutral-tasting chickpea protein concentrates and a high-protein chickpea ‘flour’ will be available by the end of the year, says Richmond-based Nutriati, which has just closed an $8m financing round to help take its plant-based wares to market.
The products will be manufactured by Nutriati and co-packers using its patent-pending technology, while New Jersey-based health ingredients specialist PLT Health Solutions, an early investor in Nutriati, will be the exclusive sales and marketing partner.
Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA after announcing the funding round – supported by London-based Tate & Lyle Ventures, L.A-based PowerPlant Ventures, Virginia-based New Richmond Ventures (NRV), and San Francisco-based Blueberry Ventures - Nutriati co-founder Mike Spinelli said the protein had unique functional properties that opened up application opportunities in everything from gluten-free baked goods to meat and dairy alternatives, ice cream and pasta.
He added: “We’ve gone from bench to pilot scale, and we’ve been in front of a number of customers that have indicated incredible interest. We’re in a test market with a beverage in the natural food channel and a number of other manufacturers are working with our flour and protein concentrate.
“We’ve invested capital at contract manufacturers and we’ve invested our own capital to put our technology in place as a complementary process step or steps to the contract manufacturing facility. We aim to be ready for commissioning in October, with products ready to ship in November, December time.
“That should take us over several thousand metric tons a year of processing capability, and beyond that, we'll have to decide how and where we’ll expand – in North America or elsewhere – but so far the market has been tremendously complimentary about what we’re doing.”
No beany taste
Fast-growing brands such as Banza (chickpea pasta), neat (egg replacers, meat analogs and baking mixes) and Rule Breaker (chickpea brownies) have been waxing lyrical about the technical as well as nutritional properties of chickpeas for some time, while a growing number of brands from The Good Bean and Biena Foods to Hippeas now use chickpeas in snacks.
However, chickpea protein is still relatively unknown to food formulators as it’s not produced on a commercial scale by any of the major players in plant proteins, despite the fact that chickpeas are very widely grown and relatively cheap compared to some other potential new sources of plant-based protein.
Nutriati’s chickpea protein - which is white, odorless, and neutral-tasting with a hint of nutty sweetness – has no ‘beany taste,’ which makes it “very compelling” for manufacturers of products such as plant-based beverages and ice cream, said Spinelli, a food R&D veteran who rose up the ranks at Ben & Jerry’s and chickpea-fueled brand Sabra, and teamed up with Altria exec Richard Kelly to form Nutriati in late 2013.
Chickpea protein has unique functional and organoleptic properties
He added: “We’ve heard from a number of companies that it’s closest to whey protein as far as flavor goes. We’ve proven we can replace plant and even dairy proteins with excellent organoleptic results in things like milk replacement. When you look at foaming, mouthfeel, and viscosity, we can offer functionality that you don’t get from some of the other [commercially available] plant proteins, so you may also be able to reduce or remove hydrocolloids in these products.
“It also performs exceptionally well on extrusion for meat alternatives.”
The ‘flour’ meanwhile, which is made from co-products of the protein production process, has proved equally attractive to food formulators, who have been working with both materials for some time, noted Spinelli, who said Nutriati had raised an initial $750k, followed by $1.5m from NRV before closing its latest, $8m, funding round.
“We didn’t want to be another company producing protein concentrates and a commodity starch as a byproduct, so we came up with a gluten-free flour that is white and fine that behaves much like a wheat pastry flour that does an extraordinary job in leavened and unleavened breads.
"It’s got 12-14% protein and we see some mimicking of wheat gluten behavior; we think we know why that’s happening, so we’ve designed that into the process so we retain the quality attributes.”
Chickpeas are just the beginning
While soy, rice and peas still dominate the plant-based protein market, several companies are now exploring the potential of chickpea protein as it is has an excellent amino acid profile, is non-allergenic, non-GMO, tastes better than pea protein and has some interesting functional properties, said Spinelli, who said Nutriati is looking at a variety of pulse crops in order to build a broader platform of products.
“We’re not a chickpea company, we’re looking at a variety of legumes and further down the road, maybe if someone is looking for a blend of plant-based proteins to meet a specific amino acid profile, or PDCAAS, we might be able to entertain that and address a niche play in the market for super premium customized ingredients. We haven’t built a 50,000t soy protein plant, so we’re very flexible."
Tate & Lyle Ventures: First mover advantage is very important in the food industry
David Atkinson, managing partner at Tate & Lyle Ventures, told FoodNavigator-USA that aside from the fact that plant-based protein is clearly a hot investment opportunity right now, Spinelli’s reputation as a formulator and his ability to work with customers on applications was a significant plus from an investment perspective.
He added: “Lots of companies are looking at chickpeas, but first mover advantage is very important in the food industry. They do have some intellectual property around the process [click HERE, HERE and HERE], but part of the [IP] protection is in trade secrets and the insights and experience of the team.
"What also gave us confidence was the tests they have done with potential customers through PLT, where they had incredible feedback. As part of the due diligence, some of PowerPlant Ventures’ portfolio companies also tested the product, and they were all raving about how good it was.”