A free-floating seed-producing micro aquatic plant that thrives in freshwater ponds, lagoons and wetlands, the water lentil (also known as duckweed and Lemna/Lemnaceae), is arguably the “world's most nutritionally complete and sustainable food source”, claims Parabel, which has offices in Melbourne, Florida and Abu Dhabi, UAE - and is building a growing facility in Uganda.
The water lentil has obvious advantages over other plant protein sources in that it grows incredibly rapidly and can be harvested in raceways (open-air ponds similar to those in which algae is grown commercially – although the water lentil is not a type of algae) all year around, Parabel Ltd marketing manager Cecilia Wittbjer told FoodNavigator-USA.
“It doubles every 16-32 hours and can be harvested every day, which is very unusual. We can deliver a consistent year-round harvest.”
The water lentil
The world's smallest, free floating, flowering plant, the water lentil grows and reproduces faster than any other leafed plant. While it flowers, fruits and seeds, the water lentil has adapted to cloning as a favored means of reproduction - reproducing itself continuously.
From a sustainability perspective, the water lentil is also unusual in that 100% of the plant is harvested and employed in the production of high value products, while the water used in the raceways is recycled back through the closed loop system.
Asked what nutrients are added to the raceway to help the plants grow, she said: “We have our own proprietary nutrient mix, but we add very little as the plant is inherently very nutritious and we recycle 98% of the water [post-harvest]."
Asked about the production costs, she said: "I can say that the price per pound or ton is going to be competitive to similar non GMO proteins like pea for example."
No chemical solvents or heat are used in the extraction process, according to Parabel, which will be launching LENTEIN Plus at the IFT show in Chicago this year.
LENTEIN Plus has more essential and branch chain amino acids than any other plant protein
While it reckons the biggest short term opportunities lie in animal (pig, fish and poultry feed) and human nutrition, Parabel has also developed products with industrial applications from soil conditioners to pet litter and bioplastics, said Wittbjer.
For the food and beverage market, Parabel has developed LENTEIN Plus, a water lentil protein concentrate containing around 68% protein (listed as 'Water Lentil Concentrate' on food labels); and Lemna flour, a fiber-rich ingredient with 7g dietary fiber per 12g serving, 16-20% protein, 100% of daily value (DV) for iron, 25% of the DV for calcium, 20% of the DV for magnesium and 10% of the DV for phosphorus, said Wittbjer.
Asked about the flour, Wittbjer said: "The Lemna flour is the fiber stream that is separated from the protein stream, but it has nearly 20% of high end protein in it so it couldn’t be called a by-product. It is a nutritious protein and fiber product with its own valuable uses."
But LENTEIN Plus protein will be first to market, she said, noting that several leading food companies are already experimenting with samples: “LENTEIN Plus has more essential and branch chain amino acids than any other plant protein as a percentage of the protein, and is comparable to whey protein.
“It also contains vitamins, minerals and micronutrient, carotenoids such as lutein, flavonoids, omega-3 fatty acids, fiber and its non-GMO, gluten-, soy-, and dairy-free. It has a slightly grass-like taste and a green color and works well in everything from chips, crackers and bars to juices, protein beverages and shakes as it is water soluble and highly dispersible without any grittiness.”
The world's most nutritionally complete and sustainable food source?
Further down the line Parabel is looking at developing products with 80%+ protein, added Wittbjer, who said Parabel has gone through the self-determination process to prove its products are generally recognized as safe (GRAS) and is now in the process of putting a dossier together to submit to the FDA in order to secure a no objections letter to its GRAS determination.
Marketed as the “world's most nutritionally complete and sustainable food source”, the water lentil has a long history of use in feed and food in south east Asia, Africa and other regions, but has never been produced on a commercial scale for the food industry, said Wittbjer.
“It’s grown and consumed by humans and animals in Thailand, southeast Asia, parts of Africa but it’s actually quite hard to grow a consistent product on a commercial basis.”
She added: “Parabel’s growth and process system is proprietary, and we have very tight intellectual property (IP) protection in the USA such that anybody who is producing or selling Lemna in a processed form is infringing on our IP.”
Parabel’s business model
So what is Parabel’s business model? To produce water lentil ingredients itself or allow others to grow and produce them under license using its patent-protected proprietary processes?
A combination of both, said Wittbjer. “We have a facility in Uganda that can produce sizeable quantities and we have done licensing deals covering production facilities in Mexico, Columbia, and other places. It only takes about three months to set up a new facility and then once you start growing Lemna, it grows very quickly, so it’s nothing like rice or peas or soy.
Parabel legal affairs manager Larissa K. Smirnoff says: “Parabel has been granted patent protection in connection with its process method in the U.S., Mexico, Colombia, Korea, Singapore, Nigeria, Morocco and Russia, and the same protection is pending in multiple other countries. Parabel also has pending patent applications pertaining to its method for cultivation, harvesting, post-harvesting process and further process methodology.”
“If there is demand, we can turn on the supply very quickly.”
Parabel's Lemna grows continuously in open-air systems that are maintained under strictly controlled growth parameters, added Wiitbjer, with a modular design enabling customer licensees to build-out in phases or to customize build-outs to various topographies for large-scale production.
Parabel will provide customers interested in licensing opportunities with a complete solution and ongoing engineering and technical support, she added.
Parabel started life as Petro Algae, once of a high-profile group of firms looking to create biofuel and other products from algae, but changed its name and its focus in late 2012 to concentrate on water lentils.