While sunflower is the world’s third largest oilseed crop behind soy and canola, it has not, yet, emerged as a player in the plant-based protein arena, in part due to technical challenges around getting at the protein, according to Apparo, which has just raised $3.5m in a series A round co-led by Endeavor8 and Finistere Ventures and supported by Blue Horizon.
“Right now they take the seeds, partially de-hull them, crush them at a really high temperature to get as much oil as possible out of them," CEO Ian Mackay told FoodNavigator-USA.
"Then they'll soak them in hexane or something like that to get the rest of the oil out, and then they'll steam distill them. So what comes out the back end is refined oil and this kind of black green mass, which you can’t upcycle."
By contrast, he said, "In our process, we fully de-hull the seeds and then we press the seeds to get out as much oil as we can, without degrading the protein. Then out of the aqueous extraction process - we don't use any organic solvents - we get two proteins and a nutraceutical (chlorogenic acid), and create a flour that still has about 25-30% protein in it as well, which is great for like pasta fortification and things like that.
“So it’s basically all food coming out, and could potentially double the revenue you could get from that seed.”
‘We're talking to the large guys, and they're very interested’
But how many companies cold press sunflower seeds these days?
“Some of larger folks do some cold pressing now; it is becoming more popular,” said Mackay, who said Apparo has filed patent applications “on both the process and some of the applications” for sunflower protein isolates.
“There is a cost as you don't get as much oil out, but from an economic standpoint, you could more than make up for that in the value of the protein. We're talking to the large guys, and they're very interested," added Mackay, who said Apparo is putting together a self-GRAS determination for the sunflower proteins.
“We're looking to partner with a major producer to get the products on the market and we are doing due diligence with multiple partners. They've seen the products and they like the products, so we’re going through engineering analysis, things like that. We've also talked to several CPG companies who have sampled the proteins, and the feedback has been very positive so far.”
‘It’s got a solubility across the pH range that plant proteins typically do not have’
So what kind of proteins does Apparo’s process yield?
“They’re both isolates,” said Mackay. “One is a soluble and sweet protein [Solistein 001 sunflower native protein isolate, which has strong foaming properties], and the other one is more complimentary to pea protein [Solistein 002 sunflower protein isolate, which has low viscosity and a light cream color].
“We're really excited about the soluble protein because we weren't expecting it to be sweet frankly, and so it looks like it's got great potential in the beverage space, reduced sugar, kids’ beverages, things like that. It’s got a solubility across the pH range that plant proteins typically do not have, so you can put it in a Gatorade, in Kool Aid, in low pH beverages, and it'll stay in solution." It also works well in plant-based dairy alternatives, he said.
“The second protein complements pea protein well [in terms of its amino acid profile] so you can combine them to get a complete protein. And it extrudes like pea protein, so we think meat alternatives will be an interesting market for that [sunflower has some sensory advantages over rice protein, which is often combined with pea, he noted].” It also works well in high-protein bakery and snack applications, and ready-to-mix nutritional beverages.
‘It would be competitively priced with North American or French pea protein isolates’
Were these proteins to be produced at significant scale, said Mackay, “They would be competitively priced with North American or French pea protein isolates.”
Apparo’s funding round was announced shortly after Burcon NutraScience announced a co-investment from Proteins Industries Canada to develop upcycled protein isolates from sunflower seeds with Canadian cold pressed oils firm Pristine Gourmet.