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Planetarians is an ingredient technology company that produces functional protein flour made from upcycled agricultural by-products and solid food waste. The California-based company was created after discovering that defatted sunflower seeds were used as beef cattle feed after being used to make sunflower oil.
However, the cattle were getting more protein from the sunflower seed meal than the people eventually eating the beef those cattle herds produced; the feed given to cattle contained 35% protein. In comparison, the beef only contained 26%.
To address the large-scale inefficiency and waste this existing system created, Planetarians devised a process that upcycled the used sunflower seeds to produce a flour that is high in fiber and protein. What resulted were sunflower chips that contained three times more protein, twice the amount of fiber, and three times less fat than standard potato chips, giving consumers a viable, healthy alternative to the conventional snack.
How Does Planetarians Produce its Upcycled Ingredients?
Humans cannot digest the oil cake left behind from the oil extraction process in sunflower oil production as the fiber content is insoluble. To break down the wood-like fiber, Planetarians use a twin-screw extruder to regularly expose the cakes to steam flashing (also called steam explosion) at specific temperatures and pressures to sterilize the product, destroy anti-nutrients, break up large fibrous elements into small cellular and subcellular parts, and reduce the water content of the product.
At the end of the extrusion process, the plant-based product is over 212 °F (100 °C) and is then subjected to extreme pressures, which is released when the product is finally extruded at the end of the barrel. Water is quickly discharged, and the chips puff and dry. Seasoning is then applied to finish the final product.
This process replaces protein isolation methods usually used.
How Do Upcycled Food Products Benefit the Industry, Environment and Consumer?
The benefits of Planetarians’ work in sustainable food production are far-reaching, with the possibility of sustainable, plant-based foods also being made from coffee grounds, orange peel, and pulp from fruit and nuts. These waste products are sometimes fed to animals, but Planetarians believe that by redirecting them, more people could be fed with healthier food, addressing both food inequality and healthy eating.
Planetarians aims to address several problems with their plant-based ingredients. Climate change, low numbers of healthy eating options, and the ever-increasing population are just some of the areas this upcycled flour could address by providing plant-based proteins to enrich peoples’ diets at affordable costs and through sustainable manufacturing methods. Additionally, the nutritional values of sunflower flour are much higher than wheat flour.
Food scientist and Planetarians founder Aleh Manchuliantsau, who works with partner Anastasia Tkacheva, spoke on the advantages of their venture, which could prove more efficient than existing production methods to create the many new plant-based products on offer: “Compared to isolated proteins like soy or pea, or high protein flours like chickpea, you don’t need to grow more crops. You upcycle what’s already grown and start from significantly lower costs.”
By using every part of the crops that have already been grown, food production will use less water and require less land, easing the environmental pressure large-scale food production exerts.
“Compared to other upcycling approaches, our technology sterilizes, destroys anti-nutrients, and functionalizes fiber in one step. This allows us to work with multiple by-product streams as a mill, even dirty ones.”
Aleh Manchuliantsau, Food Scientist and Planetarians Founder
In terms of consumer benefits, sunflower-based flour is allergen-free, meaning that consumers with special dietary needs can access foods more easily, as the plant-based food market is expanding rapidly. Using fiber-rich material to make food also benefits the overall health of the gut microbiome, which has substantial effects on overall health.
How Plant-Based Food Has Changed the Industry
As the plant-based food retail sector grew by 20% in 2018, it is clear that demand for such products is growing, especially when compared to the 2% growth seen in all foods in the US.
Always quick to evolve and respond to trends and changes, the food industry has certainly experienced a shift as a result of the plant-based food movement in recent years. More often, consumers demand transparency in their purchases, which extends to how their food is made, what goes into it, and how it affects the planet, from growing and harvesting processes to transportation, and even workers’ conditions.
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Consumers are also far more health-conscious than before, with more people demanding foods that are not only kind to the environment but also their dietary needs. Natural ingredients and natural flavors are increasingly important attributes. Consumers are often looking to buy food that is naturally rich in the nutrients they need and are moving away from buying food that is fortified to make up for nutritional weaknesses in the product. The number of people turning to alternative diets such as vegan and vegetarian also necessitates a more significant amount of plant-based foods.
Planetarians’ upcycled food rises to the growing consumer need to have one product that meets all of the following targets: sustainable production, clean, natural ingredients, and affordable costs. The company’s portfolio is growing beyond sunflower chips. Pilot trials have produced crackers, biscuits, pastries, bread, pasta and noodles, sweet biscuits, and even meat products. This highlights that food waste can be used to benefit large areas of the food industry.
Financial Advantages of Recycling Food Waste Products
By-products can be processed through the twin-screw extrusion method, and processing costs are significantly reduced to $106 per mton, with a $2.5 million capital expenditure. The financial benefits of using waste food products see Planetarians increase the value of by-products from $200 per mton for animal feed to $1,100 per mton for human consumption.
The Future of Planetarians' Sustainable, Plant-Based Food Technology
The demand for plant-based food options across sectors is increasing rapidly. This is due to widespread environmental activism, increased public consciousness about the effects the food industry has on the environment, and how consumer health and sustainable production practices can go hand in hand.
By using a waste product such as sunflower oil cakes to create new food products, the valuable protein usually lost can be saved and consumed by humans rather than livestock, benefitting human health and industry finances.
Planetarians aims to use 100% of the defatted sunflower seeds for human consumption by 2030 and expand its portfolio of upcycled, plant-based food products to a full range of consumer goods.
Not only does Planetarians hope its range of food products will increase, but it is also investigating whether products could be upcycled and made in one operation. The company is considering how the entire process could be brought to consumers by minimizing the extruders to fit in kitchens.
References and Further Reading
Olayanju, Julia. (2019) Top Trends Driving Change in the Food Industry. [Online] Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/juliabolayanju/2019/02/16/top-trends-driving-change-in-the-food-industry/#5db71a876063 (Accessed on 15 April 2020).
Planetarians (2019) Upcycled Ingredients – the land of opportunities. [Online] Available at: https://www.planetarians.com/blog/food-into-superfood-at-the-price-of-all-purpose-flour-jaeag (Accessed on 15 April 2020).
Stine, Lauren. (2019) Planetarians is Helping Food Companies Make your Favorite Foods Using Upcycled Ingredients. [Online] AFN. Available at: https://agfundernews.com/planetarians-is-helping-food-companies-make-your-favorite-foods-using-upcycled-ingredients.html (Accessed on 15 April 2020).
Successful Farming (2019) Feeding the Future. [Online] Available at: https://www.agriculture.com/news/business/feeding-the-future (Accessed on 15 April 2020).
Watrous, Monica. (2019) Upcycling Upstart on the Upswing. [Online] Food Business News. Available at: https://www.foodbusinessnews.net/articles/13519-upcycling-upstart-on-the-upswing (Accessed on 15 April 2020).