NuCicer propels plant-based innovation with ultra-high protein chickpeas
03 Mar 2022 --- Crop genetics company NuCicer is poised to commercialize ultra-high protein varieties of chickpea after closing a US$4.5 million seed financing round. The non-GM, proprietary chickpeas have up to 75% higher protein content than commodity chickpeas and are on track to shake up the plant protein space.
NuCicer CEO and founder Kathryn Cook tells FoodIngredientsFirst how NuCicer plans to market chickpea protein ingredients, high-protein flours and whole beans with an “incredible competitive advantage in pricing and functionality.”
“Increasing protein content at the chickpea variety level enables us to produce more protein per acre and improve ingredient processing throughputs. These drive scalability and cost-efficiency throughout the supply chain,” she explains.
“Sustainability is a major factor in consumer momentum shifting from animal to plant proteins, but we need to consider the amount of energy that goes into protein purification. Increasing protein content further reduces the energy and environmental inputs required for every pound of chickpea protein produced.”
Disruptor to soy and pea
The aim is to cut the cost of chickpea protein almost in half, making it price-competitive with other plant proteins such as soy and pea.
“This creates opportunities for our partners to develop new food and beverage products using our highly functional chickpea flour and purified protein ingredients,” notes Cook.
Outside of protein concentrates and isolates, Cook explains how NuCicer’s varieties also open a new opportunity for high-protein chickpea flour that retains natural protein functional properties – supporting minimally processed, all-natural food and beverage products.
75% higher protein content
NuCicer focuses on making high-value chickpea ingredients affordable to support human nutrition and improve the sustainability of global food systems – both by supporting the shift from animal to plant-based foods and opening opportunities for improvement throughout the value chain.
Chickpea protein has excellent nutritional content, a neutral flavor and color and positive consumer perception.
It is an ideal ingredient for plant-based foods – such as vegan mayonnaise – but has been too expensive to date.
“NuCicer’s high-protein content comes from unique genetics developed through many generations of breeding and advancement between wild chickpea relatives and cultivated varieties,” continues Cook.
“Not only do we find high-protein content, but we also see the variation in protein composition, which underpins functional and nutritional qualities. Targeting different compositions at the variety level for specific market needs will support minimally processed, clean label initiatives by reducing the need for masking agents and additives,” she says.
Trials and seeding breeding program
The new funding will support commercialization trials of NuCicer’s first-generation varieties.
It will also help scale NuCicer’s genomic-guided speed breeding program to provide continuous product development and further novel market improvements.
“NuCicer is scaling high-protein varieties to test and validate different processing methods and execute resulting ingredient trials with food and beverage partners across multiple product market segments,” adds Cook.
Plant-based applications and more
Cook concludes how developing a better price point for chickpeas will help propel their use as an alternative protein to meet consumer demand for non-animal-based ingredients and products.
“Chickpea protein ingredients are starting to penetrate the alternative meat and dairy market segments,” she says. “However, chickpea protein is desired for low flavor and color and high consumer sentiment, and the price point is too high for large-scale adoption as the primary source of protein.”
“Bringing down the cost of production and enabling scale for chickpea protein will open new opportunities to support improved food and beverage products in these market segments.”
“High-protein chickpea flour will also support innovation in the gluten-free pasta, baked goods and snack food market segments,” she concludes.
Lever VC, an early-stage venture capital firm focused on innovative technologies and brands in the alternative protein space, led NuCicer’s round. Other participants included The House Fund, a fund backed by the University of California Endowment, as well as Trellis Road and Lifely VC.
NuCicer’s ultra-high protein chickpeas follow moves by US food-tech company Benson Hill which has created a high-protein soybean and is part of an emergent trend of significantly modifying crops to fuel the alternative protein sector and more cheaply feed the world.
Benson Hill highlights that the value of the global plant protein market could surpass US$162 billion by 2030. In line with this, Innova Market Insights has tipped “Plant-Based: The Canvas for Innovation” as its second Top Trend for 2022.
By Gaynor Selby
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