Leaft Foods lands US$15M to bring “beef-like” proteins made from ordinary leaves to US market
The New Zealand company aims to extract natural protein from leaves, particularly alfalfa
12 Apr 2022 --- New Zealand-based Leaft Foods has scored US$15 million to accelerate the production of “beef-like” protein – rubisco – which is trapped in the cell walls of leaves. The company is now focusing its R&D activities on the alfalfa plant.
This innovation is said to open up a previously untapped, but highly ubiquitous commercial resource to the wider food industry.
“[Rubisco] has a neutral taste, odor, and color, avoiding bean-like flavors found in similar products,” Lana Kennett, project assistant and communications of Leaft Foods, tells FoodIngredientsFirst.
Moreover, the protein has shown positive results in shake or smoothie applications.
“This Series A funding gives us the ability to move quicker in bringing our product to the hands of US consumers,”Kennet continues. “This latest investment success is funding our next growth phase, including expanding our technical and product teams and growing manufacturing capacity ahead of launch.”
Investors behind the recent Series A funds are US venture capital firm Khosla Ventures, New Zealand’s indigenous investor fund Ngāi Tahu, sovereign health provider ACC and NBA player Steven Adams.
Leaft Foods also obtained R&D grants from the New Zealand government. Last year, it received US$5.5 million from the Sustainable Food & Fibres Futures fund. The funds helped accelerate the company’s technical progress and its expansion to the US, according to the company.
A hypoallergenic protein
Leaft Foods’ plant protein rubisco has a similar nutritional profile to beef, boasting digestibility that is “as good as any animal protein.”
Being a hypoallergenic substance, rubisco allows people with allergies to other plant-based ingredients like whey, soy or egg protein to have access to these types of products.
“Rubisco has a velvety texture and a neutral taste. It does not have that gritty, beany taste other plant-proteins are known for, plus it can blend into many different foods, beverages and desserts, because it foams and gels.”
Rubisco has been previously explored as a protein source by many researchers of different plants, ranging from wheat to tobacco, explains Kennett.
“Many food formulators are aware of rubisco protein because of its attributes as an ingredient, but have not been able to source it commercially.”
Extracting protein from the leaf
Every green plant activates rubisco (ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase-oxygenase) through its photosynthesis cycle, making it the most common protein on Earth.
“Nature’s biggest animals – elephants, buffalo and cattle – are all herbivores who have evolved to digest protein in leaves, especially with the latter two having multiple stomachs,” reveals Kennett.
“While [ribose] is trapped inside a plant cell, it is hard for humans to eat enough leaves for a sufficient serving of protein, let alone digest all of that plant matter.”
Leaft Foods enables the extraction of rubisco protein from any green leaf plant, such as alfalfa, spinach, kale or sprouts.
“Our technology forges a new way to tap plant protein that is tasty, nutritious, scalable and accessible for everyone. It is truly transformational,” says Leaft Foods co-founder Dr. John Penno.
Reducing CO2 emissions
Leaft Foods also claims that harnessing plant protein from leaves offers the potential to use less than 2% percent of the current agricultural land worldwide to feed all of the planet’s population.
Currently, according to The Good Food Institute, about 77% of agricultural land is used for animal agriculture, which supplies only 18% of the world’s calories.
Leaft Foods only extracts part of the protein from the leaf, leaving leftover plant matter to be consumed as animal food that does not contain as much protein. By consuming less proteins, fewer greenhouse gasses and nitrogen are released into the atmosphere by these animals.
“We’re reimagining how we make food and this could be a pathway to rapidly decarbonize by allowing farmers to farm in partnership with nature, creating a new approach to regenerative agriculture,” remarks co-founder Maury Leyland Penno.
Diverging from other plant-based protein sources
Alternative protein sources conventionally are plants like oat, almond, soy or pea. However, other alternatives have been emerging in the spotlight as consumers demand variety to reduce the strain that monoculture places on the planet.
Earlier this month, the European Commission greenlighted mung bean protein used by the company Just Egg to create eco-friendly eggs. The egg alternatives’ production involves 98% less water and 84% less land than conventional chicken eggs, while producing 93% fewer carbon emissions-.
By Marc Cervera
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