Thursday, September 15, 2022

Putting Plants—and Cellular Science--into Perspective for Die-Hard Dairy Folks


After attending back-to-back expos over the past 10 days--Plant Based World Expo in New York City and the International Whey Conference in Chicago—followed by serving as a judge for the Private Kitchen Pitch Contest presented by Midwest Dairy and The Hatchery Chicago, I think it’s important to take a step back and review what the majority of authorities in agriculture accept as fact. This will help all of us figure out how the industry can work together to prevent global famine in the next 30 years. 

Fact 1: New and more sources of protein are necessary to prevent malnourishment. While calories, namely from carbohydrates, may thwart starvation, protein is crucial for the body to thrive. And, it is impossible to feed the growing population enough protein when the only source is animals. Plant proteins are part of the answer. Precision fermentation dairy and cultivated meat cells will also likely be part of the answer. 

Fact 2: Agriculture is a big part of the solution to the climate crisis. Livestock is critical to soil health and healthy soil is required to grow nutrient-dense plants. Livestock is not going away.

Fact 3: The majority of consumers still eat animal products. While many may identify as being flexitarian and strive to consume fewer animal products, dairy, eggs and meat remain a part of the diet.

Fact 4: Plant-based milks have become another beverage option for consumers. They are here to stay. 

Fact 5: Here’s the most important fact to understand. Plants, plant proteins and animal food alternatives are three very different things. 

Let’s dissect that statement. Edible plants are whole fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, etc. These have long been lacking in many consumers’ diets. In general, we need to eat more plants in their minimally processed formats. 

Proteins—from all sources—are polymers of amino acids. The amino acids—some essential to the human diet—are linked together by peptide bonds to form polypeptide chains. Those chains get twisted together into complex three-dimensional shapes known as protein. 

In general, whole plants are low in protein content. Thus, plant proteins are isolated from plants and purified into various concentrations for use in food and beverage innovation. Animal proteins, too, may be isolated from animals; however, whole animal products, everything from a glass of milk to an egg to a steak, are high in protein content. The world needs all of these forms of protein to prevent famine. 

Then there’s animal food alternatives. Market research firm SPINS, Chicago, says vegan alternatives to animal-based products are what the term “plant based” should refer to; however, the term has gotten diluted over the past few years. While these products are not going away any time soon, this is not where innovators should be focused, in my opinion. The focus should be on developing creative, delicious and affordable ways to consume plant proteins, with or without animal proteins. Beverages, bars and snacks are the most obvious applications. Many have been combining proteins for years.

The Bolthouse Farms Protein Plus Shake, for example, contains 30 grams of protein from reduced-fat milk, soy protein concentrate and whey protein concentrate per 15.2-fluid-ounce bottle. The company explains on the side panel that “whey is absorbed quickly to satisfy immediate nutrition needs while soy protein absorbs at a lower rate for sustained benefits.”  

At Plant Based World Expo, Yangyoo, a food tech company based in Seoul, Korea, showcased its vegan cheeses. The almond-based products come in slice, shred, spread and cube formats. It is the cube format that caught my eye. Intended for snacking, the cubes come in sweet and savory flavors, including blueberry, chocolate, citron, garlic herb and jalapeno, along with plain and cheddar. Why even call them plant-based cheese? Why not protein cubes? Snack cubes? Why not combine proteins for a real powerhouse product?

New York-based Mighty Yum also made its debut at the expo. Created by two health and fitness entrepreneurs inspired to transform how families eat on the go, Mighty Yum is the vegan form of kids’ lunch kits. Varieties include plant-based versions of turkey and cheese, ham and cheese, and pepperoni pizza. But why mimic luncheon meat and processed cheese, two foods already perceived as being overly processed? Is there some other format of a protein food that could be part of such a lunch kit? 

That brings me to the Thursday afternoon Private Kitchen Pitch Contest that took place at The Hatchery Chicago. More than 50 entrepreneurs entered the contest sponsored by Midwest Dairy, a non-profit supporting farmers to highlight dairy products. Entries had to use 25% or more of cow’s milk dairy in the finished product submitted to the contest. This included milk, cheese, yogurt, butter, etc. The winner will receive six months of free rent in one of The Hatchery’s private commercial kitchens along with other startup support. 
And the winner (of five finalists) was: Twisted Eggroll. Here’s why. Twisted Eggroll is a frozen packaged product that approaches the traditional egg roll with an infused spin. They eggrolls are made with three dairy ingredients: cheese, butter and milk. There’s also real egg in the eggroll. And some versions contain plant-based protein in the form of beans. Savory varieties are Buffalo Chicken, Cheesesteak and Veggie Southwestern. There’s a new sweet option: Apple Cheesecake. 

The founder, Nikkita Randle, a Chicago native, described her product as being “made for and with dairy.” In fact, her product would not exist if it did not contain dairy. The dairy ingredients, meats and beans bring a lot of protein to this unique format. Also, eggrolls are not associated with containing dairy ingredients. The judges felt this innovation was an amazingly delicious way to increase consumption of dairy. A new product, a new concept, loaded with dairy protein and a touch of plant protein. But it is this type of innovation that could be the perfect canvas for bringing animal and plant proteins together to feed the world. 

Think about it. 

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