The Future of Protein Production Summit Exhibitor Profile: ChickP
Professor Ram Reifen and Liat Lachish Levy sit down with The Future of Protein Production to discuss the company's genesis and the virtues of the chickpea in the alternative proteins sector, and its significance in providing food security for future generations
The Israel-based company ChickP was essentially born, in 2016, out a discovery made over several years previous by Professor Ram Reifen that the physical development of children in the villages of Ehiopia, Uganda and Kenya was different to that of those growing up in the bigger cities.
A gastroenterologist and Professor of Human Nutrition within the Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agricultural, Food & Environment at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in the early 2010s Reifen was tasked with leading multiple studies in the Africa region involving chickpea cultivation, the development of chickpea-based weaning foods, and immunological studies related to this plentiful legume. In studying the crop, he came to the conclusion that the villagers were not consuming enough proteins, minerals and vitamins, as a result of which the children were suffering from delayed growth.
“Although there was a good supply of chickpeas growing in these rural areas, rather than eating them, the villagers were instead selling the crop in exchange for other goods,” Reifen reveals. “As my studies continued, I began to appreciate that the chickpea, so readily available in developing countries, actually had enormous potential for solving the challenges associated with feeding a growing population. A ‘green’ crop, non-GMO, non-allergenic, and containing a high level of protein, it represents a great starting point to answering the needs of consumers and industry.”
It's a somewhat unorthodox genesis for a company, but Reifen is adamant that with the demand for alternative proteins currently outpacing the supply – and a rising interest generally for plant-based foods – we need to look everywhere we can for future protein sources. And although he acknowledges the successes of certain products readily available in the sector, he believes there are a number of unresolved challenges that need to be addressed when it comes to plant-based foods.
Contrary to what one might think, flexitarians looking to diversify their diets with more plant-based options are the ones who are driving the plant-based boom
“Contrary to what one might think, flexitarians looking to diversify their diets with more plant-based options are the ones who are driving the plant-based boom,” adds Liat Lachish Levy, ChickP's CEO, who joined Reifen in October 2021 to drive the business forward.
According to the Euromonitor International Going Plant-Based: The Rise of Vegan and Vegetarian Food report from November 2020, that group now makes up 42% of the market, as opposed to vegans and vegetarians who, respectively, account for just 4% and 6% of consumers globally.
“For flexitarians, when choosing a plant-based food product, taste and health are the most important purchase drivers,” Levy continues. “These consumers are looking for high-quality and nutritious products but are not willing to compromise on the quality organoleptic experience – taste, smell, and texture – of their food.”
Ultimately, and perhaps counterintuitively, Reifen feels that with the rise and rise of alternative protein solutions, the disadvantages of the most popular plant proteins already on the market become ever more apparent. “Many can come off as overly processed, are GMO, contain allergens, and phytoestrogens,” he reports. “Moreover, formulators of plant-based alternatives still struggle to overcome sensory issues such as bitterness, aftertaste, and unattractive colors and textures. Once the alternative proteins industry fully overcomes these hurdles – and develops the capabilities to scale-up production of foods that are tasty, functional, and nutritious – the industry could scale to new heights.”
Our proteins are innovative, an important factor in the food industry, with high functional capacity, high nutritional value, and high sensory value – so we generate significant value for the food industry and its customers
And those are the problems and opportunities that Reifen and his team at ChickP are aiming to solve. “Our proteins are innovative, an important factor in the food industry, with high functional capacity, high nutritional value, and high sensory value – so we generate significant value for the food industry and its customers,” says Levy.
In terms of functionality, ChickP’s products contain a high percentage of protein (90% pure) without oil and other components, which means they can be used in a variety of food products across all categories. The company’s IP-protected extraction process removes oil, and other non-nutritional factors such as fibers and starch, which maximizes the benefits for both consumers and the food industry. As far as the sensory experience goes – taste, smell, appearance, and texture – it is interesting to note that ChickP’s proteins have an almost neutral taste and smell. And while some of the most popular proteins on the market today have nutritional disadvantages or lack the amino acids levels required to be defined as a complete protein or have deficiencies in terms of sensory properties, ChickP’s protein offers benefits nutritionally.
Levy says that it is vital to understand the food industry’s needs for superb functionality in products. “We have developed a unique portfolio of solutions, consisting mainly of two highly functional proteins, S930 and G910, each with their own unique abilities (emulsification, solubility, viscosity, etc) that answer the needs of different food categories.”
The result, according to Reifen, is that ChickP’s proteins are easy to incorporate into a number of categories from non-dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt, ice-cream, etc) to sports nutrition, egg replacements, meat alternatives, and much more.
Levy concedes that it in any industry it is a challenge to upset the status quo and convince people to try something new, but she believes the food industry, in particular, is open to innovation when it comes to ingredients. She also accepts that adopting a new ingredient requires a great deal of thought about entire formulations and production, especially when working with a highly functional protein. “Our protein also offers another important benefit,” she points out. “It enables the reduction of unwanted ingredients such as emulsifiers, flavors, and masking systems, in doing so allowing producers to reduce the cost of the product and contributing to a cleaner label.”
Humanity cannot treat plant proteins as a ‘passing fad' ... Surveys show that the willingness to purchase meat substitutes is high, just so long as the substitute is satisfactory
This is a particularly important point in the face of scepticism from a few sections of the media. “Humanity cannot treat plant proteins as a ‘passing fad’,” says Reifen, referencing the now infamous Bloomberg Businessweek cover story from the end of January that caused quite a stir in the alternative proteins community. “It’s true that there have been attempts that haven’t been as successful and did not sufficiently meet the expectations of consumers,” he accepts. "But the apparent failures of a few should not dictate the success of an entire movement."
“Surveys show that the willingness to purchase meat substitutes is high, just so long as the substitute is satisfactory,” notes Levy.
Furthermore, with the topic of sustainability on fire, Levy feels that plant proteins particularly can play a large and significant role in addressing climate change. Substantiating that opinion, a recent report from Boston Consulting Group found that, for each dollar, investment in improving and scaling up the production of meat and dairy alternatives resulted in three times more GHG reductions compared with investment in green cement technology, seven times more than green buildings and 11 times more than zero-emission cars. Yet alternative proteins have received only a fraction of the investment deployed in other sectors.
“The industry will keep evolving, offering better and tastier options, and that will contribute directly to climate change,” Levy says. “And we must not forget that we will also see new products offering experiences that we haven’t yet imagined possible."
“We are welcoming of any development in the alternative proteins industry that can contribute to the understanding of the importance of climate change and healthier eating,” Reifen replies, when asked what he thinks about developments in cultivated meat, particularly with Israel being such a hub for lab-grown meat innovations. “The predictions are that it will take a few more years until it is commercialized, but the demand for alternative proteins on the whole keeps growing as we speak. Our proteins can be implemented into hybrid meats, and we already working with startups in this segment.”
With such advances in cultivated meats and others in synbio, for instance, Levy is absolutely convinced that we are merely at the start of a long journey in disrupting a food system that, after all, has been decades and decades in the making. Change cannot happen overnight.
The people who move the wheels of the plant proteins industry have a real passion to create change, and besides producing an innovative great product they are also very creative
“The people who move the wheels of the plant proteins industry have a real passion to create change, and besides producing an innovative great product they are also very creative,” she says, when prompted to give her opinion about a perceived image problem for plant-based foods. “The result can be seen on the shelves with creative branding and a standout, innovative communication language that knows how to appeal precisely to the main target audience – the new generations of consumers. But this is just one side of the equation. The retail sector should also give space for new brands and products, allowing consumers to be exposed to experiment with new products.”
And on that side, ChickP has already established its capacities to whip up a vegan mayonnaise, ice cream and a barista-quality coffee creamer. It has the commercial capacity to produce 5,000 tons of chickpea isolate a year (which Reifen reports is unusual compared to other startups), serving a global client base with a unique protein that is suitable for dairy alternatives, sports nutrition, egg replacers, and meat and fish analogs. “We have invested a lot of time in finding a suitable production site, which has all the needed approved certificates such as BRC, GMP, FSSC, ISO, etc. It hasn’t been an easy task, as it also had to be a non-allergenic factory, but we have succeeded.”
Ultimately, Levy believes that with the current food system being a very significant contributor to climate change risk, we have no choice but to push forward and accelerate through the misinformed and often biased press coverage and current economic challenges. “Actually, the agri and food-tech sector may be more resilient to external factors such as economic downturns,” she feels. “Our sector is still small but has been experiencing rapid growth in recent years with 624 active startups in Israel alone. In our area of plant-based proteins, we are still seeing a growing demand.”
And although it may seem that the topic of alternative proteins would be one open mainly for new ventures, as ChickP illustrates, there is a rich ecosystem of companies active in the space including maturing startups (some of which have IPOd) alongside joint ventures and spinoffs funded by the food majors.
“Established companies are launching their own products or contributing to a burgeoning Research-as-a-Service infrastructure,” Levy concludes. “Today, there is more of a need than ever before to create products that are tasteful, available, and acceptable by consumers. These conditions are met with our unique technology and pure isolate chickpea protein products, hence we believe this could lead to a profound evolution of a large part of the food industry and existing supply chains.”
You can find out more about ChickP and its products via the company's website
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