Speaking at FoodNavigator-USA’s ‘Where next for Dairy Alternatives?’ webinar yesterday (now available on demand here: click on the grey 'on demand' tab, then 'login' to the session), NotCo founder and CEO Matias Muchnick said:
“Why are we doing a ‘barista’ version of plant-based milk? There’s no ‘barista version’ of dairy milk.
“We want to bring dairy consumers into plant-based, not switch plant-based consumers into another plant-based alternative,” added Muchnick, who recently moved from Chile to New York to spearhead the company’s US expansion.
‘Starbucks has just adopted our products [in Chile]’
Six-year-old NotCo entered the US market in November 2020 with NotMilk, which presents itself as a straight milk replacement, rather than an alternative that sets up different taste expectations (oatmilk, almondmilk), an approach Danone is now pursuing with Silk NextMilk and So Delicious WonderMilk, he said.
“We were the first ones to actually launch a plant-based milk that tastes like milk. Danone [via Silk NextMilk, So Delicious WonderMilk and Alpro Not Milk] is a reaction to NotCo. But that's good, because it proves that we weren’t crazy.
“NotMilk became one of the fastest growing items in the category in the natural channel very early on. We're less than one year in, in the US, but we’ve reached stores that are doing roughly 100 units per store per week, so we’re doing very well.
“And Starbucks has just adopted our products [Starbucks recently began offering NotMilk, NotMeat, and NotMayo in its outlets in Chile].”
Reverse engineering animal products
NotCo – which has raised $350m to date - was recently granted a first-of-its kind US patent for its AI technology (‘Giuseppe’), which it claims gives it an edge in the race to reverse engineer animal foods and put them back together - molecule by molecule - with plants, creating next-generation meat, egg, and dairy alternatives.
“Our approach has always been, there's no way we're going to mimic something if we first don't understand it, right?” said Muchnick.
“Then the question is, do we have the diversity of plants to [replicate] milk in terms of the sensory experience, the functionality of the protein – will it foam and blend with coffee? - the bioavailability of the nutrition – how are these ingredients metabolized?”
‘There's no way we're going to mimic something if we first don't understand it’
And while experienced R&D teams have learned a lot about how to formulate these products now, Giuseppe is more systematic, crawling through vast datasets (from internet recipes to USDA’s National Agricultural Library, to databases storing FTIR, gas chromatography, texturometer, physiochemical/viscosity/pH info) to make connections that “are not logical for humans,” he said.
“Our approach was that it’s not going to be a bunch of [human] scientists that will be able to tell us what exact combination of plant-based ingredients should result in the same sort of experience as a target product like milk; it’s going to be an artificial intelligence algorithm [courtesy of Giuseppe] that understands the underlying patterns between the molecular components in food and the human perception of taste, texture, smell and color.
“When you [compare results from mass spectrometry] of our milk and dairy milk, you're going to see something super-similar in terms of chemical composition.”
‘NotCo is becoming kind of like a data company more than a CPG company’
To those that suggest every foodtech startup now adds 'machine learning' to its pitch deck to secure a tech valuation for what is basically a food company, Muchnick insisted that Giuseppe's capabilities go way beyond flavor pairing.
So while NotMilk, for example, features pineapple and cabbage (two ingredients you wouldn’t expect to see in a plant-based milk, but which Giuseppe identified as a combination that would generate lactones, aroma compounds found in dairy products), Giuseppe is also tasked with finding ingredients and processes that deliver technical properties from gelling and foaming to emulsification.
“NotCo is becoming kind of like a data company more than a CPG company,” claimed Muchnick. “We have been working on this for the last six years, so we have collected a lot of data that is allowing us to understand food at a different level, create products faster, better, more accurate, and less costly than anyone else in the space.”
Replicating casein’s unique qualities in plant-based cheese: ‘We’re not 100% there’
So what about cheese, where everyone is looking for plant-based ingredients that can replicate the unique qualities of casein?
Has NotCo come up with something plant-based that can do the job? “Not yet, because if we had, we would be launching NotCheese now,” observed Muchnick.
“But we have encountered several very interesting things, combinations that are going to sound really weird to human beings, but our technology [Giuseppe] is [identifying things that] emulate in different ways what casein actually does in a fermented environment. We’re on our way to doing that, but we’re not 100% there.”
Watch FoodNavigator-USA’s ‘Where next for Dairy Alternatives?’ webinar on demand here: If you’re already registered, click on the grey 'on demand' tab, then 'login' to watch the session. If you’re not yet registered, register here.
NotMilk 2% ingredients: Water, pea protein, chicory root fiber, pineapple juice concentrate, coconut oil, sunflower oil, virgin coconut oil, cabbage juice concentrate, natural flavors, salt, gum acacia, gellan gum, calcium carbonate, monocalcium phosphate, dipotassium phosphate, vitamin B12, vitamin D2.
Nutrition: A 240ml serving of NotMilk 2% contains 4g protein, 3g fiber, 3g sugar and 90 calories. (By comparison, a 240 ml serving of 2% dairy milk from Lucerne Farms contains 10g protein, 0g fiber, 14g sugar, and 140 calories.)
As about the protein levels in NotMilk, which like Silk NextMilk contains 4g protein (half that of dairy milk), Muchnick said: “We are going to get there soon enough, and we’re going to be very very close with NotMilk 2.0 that we're launching in a couple of months.”
Pic credit: NotCo