Improved Nature uses a proprietary low-moisture extrusion process to convert soy protein powder into fibrous structures that do not require the addition of methylcellulose, protein isolates, egg, or other functional ingredients to make meat replacement, said CEO Dr Richard Hawkins, a meat scientist who spent 14 years in R&D at ConAgra and 15 years at consultancy RDI Foods helping food companies develop new products, set up and improve operations.
“We’re not doing high moisture extrusion, like a lot of companies in this space,” he told FoodNavigator-USA.
“What we’re doing is unique in the space as the base product – apart from any breading or seasonings/flavor - is just plant protein. We’re just using heat, pressure and steam. The end product is just like shaped pasta.
“You boil it for 10-15 minutes and it hydrates into a fibrous protein with the texture of chicken that’s four or five times its weight, so one pound of dry product makes at least four pounds of meat. Whatever you boil it in, it absorbs that flavor.”
What people also really like about our products is the clean labels
He added: “What people also really like about our products is the clean labels. Most of these products require things to glue them together or serve a functional purpose, whether it’s wheat gluten or methylcellulose or starches or protein isolates but we don’t need any of those things for functionality. We’re just setting up a stable structure with the protein itself. Anything that might be added is for flavor and taste.”
‘We wanted to create something with a better bite’
So how does this compare to TVP (textured vegetable protein)?
“That was the precursor to what we’re doing,” said Dr Hawkins, who founded Improved Nature in Gartner, North Carolina in 2015 with Israeli inventor Moshe Meidan, and three colleagues from RDI: Steve Klawiter, Larry Chandler, and Sarid Shefet.
“Three of the founders were working in the TVP market and felt it didn’t deliver the full texture, bite and satisfaction of meat. We wanted to create something with a better bite, and it took years of work to get to this point. We don’t have just one process, every product has its own unique set up that’s about the direction of the fibers and how we control them to get the bite and look and texture that we want, so you’ll see at least 5-7 different set ups.”
He added: “A lot of people in this space are doing burgers and sausages, and we can make a great sausage patty – I’m a meat scientist and I can’t tell the difference [vs ‘real’ sausage meat] - but where we really stand out is with these whole muscle type products. They don’t go soft when you fry them, freeze or thaw them, they are very stable and they have a better bite.”
Right now, the company is working with soy protein but is beginning to explore how the technology would work with other plant-based protein sources, he said.
The company raised $6m in seed capital in 2015, a further $3m via a convertible note in 2018, and is looking at a Series A round in 2020, added Dr Hawkins.
“Right now, we export more product than we sell in the US, but we’re predicting that the US market is going to grow substantially for us next year because of big foodservice groups we’re working with right now as well as the retail launch.”
As for capacity, the plant in North Carolina can produce about 4m pounds of dry product (at least 16m pounds of ‘meat’ when hydrated), he said.
Improved Nature launched its first products in 2017 in the foodservice market (schools, hospitals, corporate cafeterias) supplying dry, pre-formed tenders, chunks and other shapes to customers to boil on site, but is now making its retail debut in ShopRite with pre-hydrated, ready-to-cook breaded refrigerated nuggets, filets and tenders from Non-GMO soy with a 45-day shelf life.
It has also teamed up with Perky Jerky to create a plant-based jerky product going nationwide in Whole Foods that looks, tastes, and chews like real jerky, he said.
Asked about pricing, he said: “We’ve got a bit more flexibility in our pricing as we don’t require so many ingredients, and I’d also say that if you can get into school lunch programs, which is pretty price restrictive, then you’re competitive.”