Equinom fuels “supercharged” seed breeding with AI to elevate plant-based nutrition
08 Apr 2021 --- Using smart breeding technology, Equinom aims to distinguish ingredients intended for human consumption from those used as livestock feed.
To develop what the company calls “human-grade” seed varieties with an elevated nutritional profile, Equinom combines data from the world’s largest seed bank with AI technology to deliver ingredients that are intended for higher quality meatless diets.
The Israeli agri-tech specialist argues that seeds offering a higher nutritional profile will benefit plant-based R&D, as current varieties of plant-based meat analogs are often made with the same seeds an average farm animal consumes.
The company’s CEO, Gil Shalev, speaks with FoodIngredientsFirst to discuss the company’s work with PepsiCo’s hummus brand Sabra to develop a “smart sesame seed” and the importance of differentiating “supercharged” food ingredients from animal feed using breeding technology.
“We began breeding Smarter Sesame in 2014 and released our first commercial non-GMO sesame varieties in 2019. These IP-protected seed varieties boast a host of super-traits – high-value health, function and cultivation characteristics,” he details.
Breeding Smarter Sesame seeds
Using its patented computational seed breeding technology, Equinom targets multi-trait properties by combining traditional germplasm with exotic varieties and screens their DNA material to build the perfect seed.
This is achieved without the need for gene editing or modification.
Smarter Sesame seeds are bred to offer a high oil content up to 58 percent; high protein at more than 50 percent after oil extraction; high yields up to 2,500 lbs per acre; and improved taste with reduced bitterness as an oil and neutral flavor profile as a protein.
“Our Smarter Sesame is currently grown in all six continents – the US, South America, Western Europe, Southern Europe, the Middle East and Australia. Bringing our varieties to new regions shortens supply chains and brings them closer to home,” explains Shalev.
“Sesame protein exists – it’s created after oil is extracted. We’ll be able to divulge more soon.”
The ideal tahini sesame for hummus
Sabra called upon Equinom to breed the ideal tahini sesame for their hummus products.
“They required sesame seeds with improved flavor and texture specifically for tahini, which is a dominant ingredient in hummus. Sabra began producing this sesame in 2020,” Shalev highlights.
“With Equinom’s gold standard sesame, Sabra now produces authentic tahini inexpensively and sustainably.”
Sabra sources its chickpeas from US farmers in the Pacific Northwest but the company has had to look elsewhere for sesame. “That’s because most of the crop grown in the US isn’t right for tahini. It’s better for baked goods and sesame oil,” says Shalev.
Equinom entered a similar collaboration with plant-based ingredients supplier Roquette in 2018 for the development and sourcing of new pea varieties with high-protein content.
Distinguishing human food from animal feed
Equinom highlights that certain crops such as soy, which is bred for high yield, are not differentiated in their allocation between direct human food and animal feed.
According to recent research by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment in the US, just 55 percent of the world’s crop calories are actually eaten directly by people.
Another 36 percent is used for animal feed, while the remaining 9 percent goes toward biofuels and other industrial uses.
“Having the right tools is important and having the right ingredient is even more so,” says Shalev. “We must improve our source ingredients, seeds, and that is exactly what we’re doing at Equinom.
“By improving the source, we can improve the entire chain process and final product.”
Supercharged seeds in the pipeline
Recent analysis has found that the US meat-free industry grew by 27 percent, bringing up the national plant-based market value to US$7 billion. Notably, this sector is still dominated by wheat, soy and pea crops.
“We want to bring more options to market and so we are developing high-potential, nutritious seeds tailored to local climates and cultural recipes – including chickpeas, mung beans, quinoa, cowpeas and fava beans,” explains Shalev.
Last October, Equinom inaugurated a new R&D center that houses all vital departments together – biochemistry, applications, sensory and breeding. The company operates with the aim of “dramatically reducing” the cost of source ingredients by improving and “supercharging” them.
Located at Kibbutz Givat Brenner in the agriculturally rich center of Israel, the new center allows Equinom to generate source ingredients for the food industry starting at the seed level.
“Today, many of the desirable nutritional traits have been lost over the years due to breeding for carbs and yield,” notes Shalev.
“We are working to bring back these quality traits that already exist in nature, to create highly nutritious source ingredients.”
By Benjamin Ferrer
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