During the recent Rethinking Food: The Future of Food Innovation event in Tel Aviv, Israel, organised by the Israel Export Institute, Dr Kevin Robinson met with Ram Reifen, a paediatric specialist in gastroenterology and nutrition and a Professor of Human Nutrition at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s School of Nutritional Sciences, to discuss the next big development in plant-based protein.
A world-renowned expert in food security, maternal and child nutrition with 120 peer-reviewed papers to his name and more than 50 combined years of research and clinical experience, Ram is currently the Director of the Centre for Nutrigenomics and Functional Foods at the Hebrew University.
He has served as a committee member for WHO and the European Union on issues related to food, nutrition and health, and has recently founded ChiCK.P, a new company with IP-protected technology for the production of high quality plant protein.
“The market for plant-based proteins is thriving,” he explains, “and is projected to reach a global value of more than $10 billon by 2020. At the same time, the proportion of people that are reducing their meat intake is steadily increasing and, in addition, the desire for clean label products that are easy to digest, the need to avoid allergens, the growth in vegetarianism and veganism, and concerns about sustainability are putting the spotlight on plant proteins.”
This change in eating patterns is putting a greater emphasis on new varieties of foodstuffs that satisfy consumer requirements for healthy and tasty products that can replace meat and cheese and deliver a similarly high level of protein and nutritional value.
“We’re looking to address a billion-dollar market,” notes Ram, “and offer a novel solution to the growing need for plant-based protein. I’ve been studying chickpeas for 15 years as an alternative to soy and now, for the first time, by using a unique IP-protected technique to produce functional chickpea protein (60–90%), we can enable the food industry to enrich its products with high-quality chickpea protein and produce meat and dairy alternatives with a complementary protein profile.”
As yet, the chickpea protein concentrate is not available for industrial use. But, says Ram: “The new ChiCK.P protein is safer, greener and healthier, conferring significant advantages to the food industry. It’s flavourless, functional, easy to use and, in terms of consumer benefits, it’s clean label, hormone-free, non-allergenic and non-GMO.”
Supported by an initial investment of $500,000 in September 2016, from Agrinnovation, an investment fund comprising private investors and Yissum, the technology transfer arm of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, ChiCK.P was established at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“We estimate that the market potential of our exclusive innovative chickpea protein is 3–5% of the total soy protein market, which is expected to reach $8 billion by 2024,” notes Ram, adding: “Thus, we believe that during the next 5 years, ChiCK.P’s revenues will reach $300 million.” The team currently includes Prof. Ram Reifen (founder), Dr Shimrit Bar-El (COO), Martin Schuring (CTO), Dr Ido Schechter (CEO of Agrinnovation) and an undisclosed number of part time consultants.
“Soy is a major allergen,” explains Ram: “It’s one of the big eight and if people are allergic to cow’s milk, there’s a 50% chance that they’ll also be allergic to soy. Infant formulae made with soy are riven with phytoestrogen hormones. It’s like giving babies two contraceptive pills a day. Plus, up to 90% of soy is thought to be GMO, which brings with it an associated cancer risk.” “Chickpea is non-allergenic, has negligible levels of phytoestrogens, is non-GMO and grows in semi-arid regions, so we can produce it locally and avoid any import costs. It’s a green crop, requires very little fertilisation and makes an excellent rotation legume to maintain the quality of the soil. And chickpea awareness is on the rise; 20% of Americans are now familiar with the pulse.”
Ram concedes that pea protein is already “out there,” but emphasises that “it’s also allergenic, has an aftertaste and has lower levels of protein and other nutrients — complex sugars, iron, etc. — compared with chickpea. Our extract has a protein content of up to 90% with a profile that’s just as good as soy.”
Production and use
The company’s IP-pending technology has undergone scale-up and optimisation during the last 6 months and is presently being developed and tested in northern Germany. At the same time, they are negotiating with various strategic B2B partners in Israel, Europe and the US.
Although the company isn’t planning to undertake commercial scale manufacturing in-house, volumes of 100 kg to 1 tonne can currently be processed in standard machinery that doesn’t need to be customised or altered, making tech transfer relatively simple.
“Samples of our product are now under examination and evaluation in various food companies, with applications in meat substitutes, dairy alternatives, beverages, pastries, snacks, bars and more. We are examining two production sites in Europe at the moment. In parallel with our search for a strategic partner, we are continuing the R&D activities of this start-up and looking to submit a second IP in due course,” notes Ram.
“Why now? I ask Ram. “The Agrinnovation funding played a major role,” he admits, “but chickpea is not as well recognised or appreciated as a lot of other foodstuffs, especially in the West. Yes, it’s slightly more expensive than pea as a raw material, but it offers excellent gelation properties, superb taste and texture properties, as well as an outstanding bite in meat analogue products. Plus, with its good concentration of lysine, we see potential applications in sports nutrition products and the high protein market.”
Infant nutrition applications
In the infant nutrition sector, breast milk is still the gold standard and Ram has no intention of trying to compete in that market. “We’ll look at weaning foods for children who have reached their first birthday and beyond,” says Ram, “as the regulation is less stringent. We’ve already done a trial in Kenya to alleviate malnutrition with a “ready lunch” that can be reconstituted with water, which went very well.”
“Plus,” he adds, “as we use the whole grain, we’re also looking at the non-protein content for prebiotic applications. With allergies on the rise and no real consensus on the reason why, we have great expectations for our organic, lactose- and gluten-free product in the immune health sector, and hope to achieve a 5% share of the overall plant protein market.”
In summary, as a result of cutting-edge research done in his lab, Ram believes this innovative start-up holds a genuine opportunity to benefit from the lucrative market of health foods, and plant-based protein in specific.