Part 1: Technology, or How We Hacked Animal Agriculture
Hello, I’m Aleh, and I’m a food developer.
In selling my meals, I always see that the more protein there is in the meal, the more desirable it is for the customer. So I’m constantly thinking about protein cost reduction.
Imagine my fascination when I stumbled upon ingredients disregarded by the food industry (they fed it to the cows!) but were still 35 percent protein. To better understand my fascination - compare it with the 26 percent protein we get from beef.
What was the ingredient? Oil cake—the dry matter left after oil extraction from crops such as sunflower seeds, cotton seeds, canola, etc.
And why is it wasted? The main nutrient in these oil cakes is insoluble fiber that cannot be chewed and digested by humans. It’s hard like wood chips.
I thought, what if instead of protein isolation, we could break the fiber down?
We used steam explosion—an effect that occurs when overheated liquid is exposed to the ambient environment, expands very fast, and crushes everything in its path.
To verify our assumption, we successfully completed tests at the University of Minnesota this April. Now we know that we have a food-grade product that we can commercially manufacture and sell.
General Mills’ Medallion Lab verified our nutrition facts (yes, we have our protein), and based on that, we filed two patent applications: one for the use of oil cake as the first ingredient in food products, and another for steam explosion as a method to break the fiber down in food preparation.
What products can we make from oil cakes?
Being in the meal replacement business, we first had the idea to create a cheaper version of our meals. Currently, customers pay $10–$15 for a day’s worth of calories. With this new ingredient we could lower it to $3.
The second thought was based on the observation that more and more meals happen on the go. So we could make a healthy snack that had the same price as a bag of chips but with more protein.
Given the fact that we have enough oil cakes to feed another America (population is growing), imagine how big the wave we could ride. With this pitch, I came to TechStars Accelerator.
Part 2: Science, or How You Can Hack Pricey Organic Food
If you’re not familiar with a TechStars Accelerator, it basically works like this. For three months you poke holes in your business model. In month one you challenge all of your assumptions, in month two you build, and in month three you prepare for big scale.
After one month in the accelerator, we learned that we might have a more valuable asset in our oil cakes than just protein—but what could be more valuable than protein?
The organic industry says that the conventional food industry broke down our food into nutrients and reassembled it with other ingredients, such as corn. Maybe this lowered the price of calories and fights hunger, but it looks like something happened with our meals because Americans are overweight today and are faced with such high rates of obesity, diabetes and heart diseases that we never had before.
The organic industry advises us to eat as we did before those changes. It’s a good idea, but can everyone afford it? Do we have enough land to feed a growing population with an old technology set?
Researchers at UC Davis  decided to study breast milk, which Mother Nature prepared for us as the ultimate meal.
They found that one of the main ingredients in a mother’s milk cannot be digested by a baby. But why would breast milk contain such a useless nutrient?
Researchers found that this nutrient (oligosaccharides, in simple words - fiber) is consumed by a bacteria living in our intestine (microbiome) which regulates our metabolism.
Their colleagues from Stanford  proved that microbiome acts like a second immune system for food borne diseases. Other words, if we feed our bugs, they protect us.
Due to use of refined and processed carbohydrates that striped away beneficial fiber, average fiber consumption in US fell down to mere 15g, while FDA recommends at least 28g. Isn’t it the main reason of the diet related diseases?
When we put this fiber back into our foods, we can make our meals complete again without pricey Organic foods. But is the cost our main problem?
1. Human Milk Oligosaccharides: Evolution, Structures and Bioselectivity as Substrates for Intestinal Bacteria, J. Bruce German, Samara L. Freeman, Carlito B. Lebrilla, and David A. Mills, Department of Nutrition, University of California, Davis, Calif., USA
2. Diet-microbiota interactions as moderators of human metabolism.
Sonnenburg JL, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, California 94305, USA.
Bäckhed F, Wallenberg Laboratory for Cardiovascular and Metabolic Research, Department of Molecular and Clinical Medicine, Institute of Medicine, Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, 413 45 Gothenburg, Sweden.
Part 3. The Problem We Need to Solve, or I Wish My Mom Knew about It
Obesity is on the rise:
“Gen X Overtaking Baby Boomers on Obesity” —ScienceDaily.com
“Children Growing Weaker as Computers Replace Outdoor Activity” —Guardian
“‘iPad Generation’ Means 9 in 10 Toddlers Live Couch Potato Lives” —Telegraph
Obesity is not just a personal tragedy—it’s also an economic problem. Unhealthy eating combined with lack of physical activity affects people in many ways:
- Heart disease
- Other diet-related diseases
Eighty percent of American adults do not meet the government's national physical activity recommendations for aerobic and muscle strengthening. Around 45 percent of adults are not sufficiently active to achieve health benefits. Around $117 billion in healthcare costs are associated with inadequate physical activity. Adults who are inactive pay $1,437 more per year in healthcare costs than physically active adults.
Combined with diet related diseases obesity costs the U.S. healthcare system $1.4 trillion annually.
Adult Obesity in the United States, A project of the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Physical Inactivity in the United States, A project of the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
Part 4. Competition, or Why Broccoli Isn’t Worth the Fight with Your Kids
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends eating at least 28g fiber a day. And you might have heard a suggestion to eat a rainbow of fruits every day. But one Harvard School of Public Health study discovered that about 60 percent of vegetables and roughly 40 percent of fresh fruit at schools are thrown away.
Things get even worse when you look at the fiber levels in these fruits and veggies.
Can you eat 10 apples to meet the minimum threshold of fiber consumption? Or maybe two pounds of broccoli?
And while the web is full of recipes on how to make artichokes yummy, peas a pleasure, and kale more attractive to your kids, parents have to constantly balance supplying nutritious meals to their families and dealing with their children, who look at these vegetables and say, “Looks weird. I’m not eating it.”
Impact of the New U.S. Department of Agriculture School Meal Standards on Food Selection, Consumption, and Waste, Juliana F.W. Cohen, Scott Richardson, Ellen Parker, Paul J. Catalano, Eric B. Rimm, American Journal of Preventive Medicine,46(4):388-394, online March 4, 2014
Part 5. Solution, or Fiber and Protein for Kids Who Won’t Eat Their Veggies
After our first snack—a crunchy, heavy, savory item that paired well with beer—received an average solid rating of four stars on Amazon, we decided to go in another direction with our new kid-friendly snack.
We decided to help our parents and make tasty snacks from our sunflower oil cake, which is high in both fiber and protein.
We updated our product line with cereals, puffs, pillows, and more. We made lighter texture, sweeter flavors, and brighter colors for kids’ tender mouths. We calculated serving sizes to give your daily intake of fiber from a variety of yummy products you can always keep at hand:
- a fast breakfast in the morning,
- to-go bags to put into your kids’ backpacks or to have in the car,
- healthy chips for candy basket or movie bowl