NotChicken patties (SRP $7.99/pack of four) will be available in the frozen section of Sprouts stores nationwide later this year, with regional retailers to be named next year, while NotChicken nuggets will hit shelves in Q1 2023, said NotCo co-founder and CEO Matias Muchnick, who claimed the products had outperformed plant-based rivals' in recent consumer taste tests.
But with slowing sales in the US meat alternatives category as some less engaged shoppers have dipped out of the set in a period of surging inflation, does the world need another plant-based chicken nugget or patty?
The answer is yes - but only if it’s better than what’s already on the market - argued Muchnick, who said the meat alternatives category is “saturated with me-too products from companies that don’t own any IP,” and claimed that “we have IP and something that other companies don’t.”
‘What matters to retailers is are you going to drive profitability or not? Are you bringing real innovation to the market and can you drive growth?’
The fact that NotCo products are gaining traction in other meat-centric markets such as Brazil, Argentina, and Chile (where Burger King now offers NotChicken and NotBurger) has also opened doors in the US, said Muchnick, while NotCo has also “proven itself” in the US market with NotMilk [already in 8,000 stores since launching in 2020] and NotBurger [now in 700 US locations including Sprouts and Whole Foods since launching in early summer].
“NotChicken has been validated in other markets, which gives people confidence, but retailers are also aware that NotBurger and NotMilk are performing incredibly well here in the US. What matters to them is are you going to drive profitability or not? Are you bringing real innovation to the market and can you drive growth?”
‘As Pat Brown has said, plant-based burgers are not Twinkies’
That said, “Macroeconomic pressure is having a detrimental impact” on the category given that plant-based alternatives are generally more expensive than their animal-based counterparts, said Muchnick, who echoed comments recently made by Impossible Foods CEO Peter McGuinness about the need for better messaging around the benefits of plant-based foods.
“The plant-based industry has been bad at communicating the upsides” about sustainability and nutrition, he added, including NotCo in his critique.
“The animal industry has been very successful at putting out propaganda that plant-based is overly processed. But as [Impossible Foods founder] Pat Brown has said, plant-based burgers are not Twinkies.”
While the NotBurger has more saturated fat than a regular beef burger, the relative healthfulness of conventional vs plant-based meat is not just about grams of fat, stressed Muchnick, who pointed to the links between red and processed meat consumption and heart disease and certain types of cancer and pointed to studies exploring other elements in animal protein that may be linked to inflammation and potential carcinogenic and cardiovascular risk.
NotChicken formula varies by region: US variant features soy protein base, wheat and fava bean protein, and… peach powder
As with all NotCo products, he explained, the formulation of NotChicken varies by market.
The US recipe, for example, has a base of soy protein, with wheat protein and fava bean protein as secondary ingredients, while there’s an unexpected entry further down the list: peach powder. In Chile, meanwhile, NotChicken has a base of pea protein with chickpeas; while in Brazil, strawberry and tomato extracts provide a flavor that appeals to the local market, Muchnick told FoodNavigator-USA.
First products from Kraft Heinz/NotCo JV to launch this year
Separately, the first co-branded products to emerge from a joint venture between NotCo and Kraft Heinz will launch this year, said Muchnick. "I can't say any more than this, but there's something coming in the next couple of months." Read more about the partnership HERE.
*NotCo will be showcasing the new NotChicken products at Natural Products Expo East this week at booth #2735
INGREDIENTS LIST (core NotChicken nugget or patty, US formulation): Water, canola oil, textured soy protein, natural flavors, soy protein isolate, methylcellulose, wheat protein, bamboo fiber, fava bean protein isolate, salt, corn powder, peach powder.
NUTRITION FACTS (85g NotChicken patty): 180 calories, 9g protein, 1g sat fat, 610mg sodium, 2g fiber, 10% DV for iron
Artificial intelligence and plant-based formulation: Meet Giuseppe
Giuseppe – the name given to NotCo’s artificial intelligence platform – is integral to NotCo's product development process, claimed Muchnick.
“We try to understand in a very profound way what animal products are; not just the molecular information, the composition of the protein, but every dimension of the product, the spectral information, the physiochemical composition, the sensory information."
And Giuseppe is then tasked with recreating this experience with plants, 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.”
Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA earlier this year, NotCo co-founder and CTO Karim Pichara added: "Gathering data on flavors is not new, but we're the first company that created an unstructured data set that allowed the training of an AI algorithm specifically designed for modeling flavor compounds at the molecular level, especially the volatile compounds, and how we describe flavors according to the words we assign for the names of the flavor notes.
“So there’s a mapping between the molecular world and word descriptions for flavor notes to understand how to cross that with all the potential ingredients, essences and oils we also have in our database.
“We're already partnering with a big flavor house where they are adopting our system in their R&D processes to improve, accelerate and enable new discoveries."
He added: “In the case of the NotChicken burger, we’re were using peach and corn, and those ingredients came out of this new part of Giuseppe.”
But Giuseppe is not just good at spewing out unexpected ingredients in NotCo products - such as pineapple and cabbage in NotMilk (which Giuseppe identified as a combination that would generate lactones, aroma compounds found in dairy products) cocoa powder in NotBurger, and peach in NotChicken), stressed Pichara.
“Everything is part of a formula, the process and the ratios, as well as the ingredients. You change the ratios and you can create a huge improvement in the final formula. The AI is teaching us things and we are improving over time. All of these things could be done by humans, but they take years to make small improvements, we’re doing this in weeks.”
One area NotCo is working on is protein structure prediction, he said: “Understanding protein structure in the food world is very important. Many of the functional properties in animal products come out of the structure of the protein, so the only way to come up with plant-based products that have the same behavior is to understand the 3D structure of proteins and understand how the structure changes over time as the protein is being denatured with the different processes.
“So we’re actively working on using AI to understand what happens with these desired proteins over time in different formulas under different processing conditions, to see how we can achieve the same behavior and functional properties with only plant-based sources. So [the dairy protein] casein is obviously one of the proteins we’re looking at [matching with plant-based alternatives].”