December 13, 2023

IIFH Partner Summit 2023: Bringing Together Food Industry Leaders Breaking Barriers to Deliver Happier, Healthier, Longer Lives

14 November 2023

One of the panels of IIFH Partner Summit 2023 titled “Protein: Maximizing health benefits and taste while minimizing environmental impact” focused on new proteins coming to market – thinking about where they come from, what they look like at the molecular level, and how they’re impacting health. Four companies developed through work at UC Davis and the Innovation Institute for Food and Health (“IIFH”) were featured, including TMG’s portfolio companies such as Rivalz, Digestiva, and Meati.

In 2015, IIFH convened a global group of domain experts, including Tata Trusts, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and from across the UC Davis campus. This group developed an ambition for healthy snack food that could supply Low- or Middle-Income Countries with affordable nutrition. The spirit of this ambition is captured within Rivalz. Peter Barrick, the CEO of Rivalz, and a two-time UC Davis alumni, talked about how the company’s product offerings are the first ones entering the market that can challenge Big Snack on flavor, but are also healthy for the consumer.

“Were the uncontested leader today in the salty snack category in terms of nutrition.  If you look at the legacy brands, theyre undeniably delicious, but theyre built on a foundation of fat, salt, and carbs. Natural product brands have better source ingredients and lifestyle certifications. But we ask the fundamental question: Just because you have better source ingredients, does that mean youre nutritious and taste good? Unfortunately, the answer is no.”

Rivalz is in a position to revolutionize the salty snack category and move it away from empty calories and towards the delicious. How? One distinguishing feature is the company’s reliance on artificial intelligence, which is helping to unlock nutrition (Rivalz is high in protein and fiber), while also challenging the existing paradigm that’s dominated by snack food companies.

Barrick said Rivalz is taking a multi-vertical approach to AI, which has enabled the company to “figure out how to extrude hard to work ingredients and maintain the cell structure and the expansion rate without the carbohydrates, or minimizing the carbohydrates that our competitors use.” (Rivalz has filed a patent for this improved protein quality and digestibility.) He added that “AI technology will allow us to create best in class products that can disrupt category after category after category, delivering next-level nutrition.”

To do this, Rivalz has teamed up with another company that grew out of work at UC Davis, PIPA, which focuses on AI for food and health. This relationship has enabled rapid, tailored solutions to the company’s challenges. Also helping the company to meet those challenges are intellectual property, trade secrets, a management team with deep experience at the intersection of food science and consumer goods, and a great team of advisors including the dean of the UC Davis Graduate School of Management, Rao Unnava. Barrick also highlighted that Rivalz has been named the official snack food for UC Davis Athletics, which recognized the need for athletes to have an easy to access snack that fuels performance. Rivalz is also available online and widely distributed through school lunch programs.

Dr. Julie Hirsch is the COO of Digestiva, which got its start in the lab of the IIFH Faculty Director, Dr. Justin Seigel. Digestiva is focused on improving protein digestion and unlocking the power of protein in order to address multiple health conditions. Not all protein gets digested. That means, said Dr. Hirsch, that

we must be really efficient, and that reality is why Digestiva exists: Human beings are not that efficient at understanding protein digestion and we think we can change that. In fact, humans are only 80% efficient in digesting plant proteins, which means that 20% is doing something else, mostly going to waste. We’re not extracting that nutrition that we need from the protein that we’re already ingesting.”

Dr. Hirsch said, has demonstrated that it can increase protein digestion three to seven times, and double the levels of essential amino acids in our blood. How? “Digestiva is digging into understanding the millions of peptides and what they do in terms of benefiting health.”

Dr. Hirsch also added that, “it’s not only about the amount [of the increase], it’s how well or how fast you can process that protein. Digestiva allows your body to begin digesting the available proteins from foods as soon as you eat them.”

Morrad Fadel is Vice President of Innovation & Commercialization at Meati Foods (“Meati”). Fadel described the company as focused on “elevating humanity’s collective health and longevity through the limitless power of mushroom root.” He noted that mushrooms are one of the most nutrient dense sources of nutrition on earth on a dry basis, with over 60% digestible protein and 20% dietary fiber. There are four Eat Meati™ products and they are low in sodium, low in fat, and have zero cholesterol. They also address 13 known nutritional deficiencies and may reduce the risk of cardiovascular health disease.

When looking at the Meati’s MushroomRoot™ under a microscope, said Fadel, it looks very similar to that of animal muscle fiber. “What Meati’s been able to do is harness that, grow it and then form it in a way that creates the first and most transformational whole muscle meat within the plant-based category or meat alternative category.”

Even amid cutting-edge science, Fadel emphasized that “we always start with the consumer in mind.” He pointed to an opportunity to develop a direct-to-consumer (“D2C”) channel. “We have 30,000 folks that are part of our D2C touchpoints. We can get several of those, recruit those in and share some early insights about product and product design with those folks. And they gave us instant feedback. That’s one iteration cycle that we think is super powerful and allows us to move very fast.” The consumer focus is paying off. Fadel said that Meati has four Eat Meati™ products in the market and it’s number one in the plant-based category.

A spirited question and answer session followed the presentations by the panelists. One audience member noted that ultra-processed foods are associated with adverse health outcomes, particularly cardiometabolic health outcomes. She then asked Fadel how Meati approaches the issue. “We start from a position of minimally processed,” he said. “We spend a lot more time listening to mycelium than we do manipulating mycelium.” He added that Meati has created a Scientific Advisory Board (chaired by Dr. Schmitz, Founding Partner of The March Group, and including experts from UC Davis) and will be studying the ingredients that are put under stress during the extrusion process.

Dr. Justin Siegel followed by noting that the framing of whether foods are processed, and the level of processing, “is a function of ignorance, because every time you take a bite of your food, we can only measure on the order of 100 to 150 molecules in that food, which contains somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 molecules.” And until it’s possible to measure molecular composition in food processing, said Siegel, it can’t be known whether that processing was good or bad.

The good news, Dr. Siegel said, is that advances in AI and genetic technologies over the past two decades, all of the molecular information in different ingredients, and how all of the proteins get affected by processing, can now be calculated at a price of about $20 – down from $20,000.

“It’s the first time in history that we are actually having the capabilities to open up the black box of processing and not simply labeling products as “processed,” “ultra-processed,” or “raw.” We can determine what molecules are there and how processing affects them – positively or negatively. By answering those questions, I think we’ll move to a new paradigm around impact of food processing.”

Note: The information provided in this highlight is extracted from the complete version prepared by IIFH. Please visit IIFH website and access the complete version.