TEN years ago, it would be inconceivable to eat a delicious hamburger that’s made out of plants or grown in a lab. But ten years from now, they may be the bulk of the hamburgers we eat.
No food group is undergoing more rapid and radical transformations than meat. All types of meat – from prawn and chicken, to pork and mutton – might someday just as likely come from a lab as a farm.
Singapore startup Shiok Meats recently made headlines for raising S$17.3 million in Series A funding to manufacture cell-based seafood. The company takes stem cells from crustaceans (shrimp, crab and lobster), and multiplies them in a laboratory. The results taste as good as the real thing, say founders Sandhya Sriram and Ka Yi Ling, who are former stem cell scientists-turned-food techpreneurs.
Meanwhile another Singapore startup – also founded by a stem cell biologist-turned-food techpreneur – is doing for red meat what Shiok Meats is for seafood. The aptly-named Gaiafoods is in the process of raising more funds for the research and development of cell-based beef, pork and mutton.
Right now, it takes 440,000 cows to produce 175 million burgers. But if Gaiafoods can perfect the science, all it takes is one cow – yes, one cow.
The company founder Vinayaka Srinivas says: “What holds us back – not just our company but everyone in this field of cell-based meat – is the technology. We know how to do it, we know it can be done, but the technology is slow and expensive . . . We expect there will be breakthroughs in the coming years and we will see the process of making cell-based meat becoming increasingly cheaper to produce.”
For now, a Whopper with a cell-based patty would cost a whopping S$1,000 to create in a lab. Last year, it was S$2,000. Within less a decade, pundits expect cell-based meat to be as inexpensive as ordinary meat.
For its part, Singapore has embraced cutting-edge developments in cell-based food as well as plant-based food. The land-scarce country views them as a means of achieving its goal of producing 30 per cent of its nutritional needs by 2030. Currently, it imports 90 per cent of its food.
To that end, it is extremely supportive of the food tech sector. The government allocated over S$144 million into food research programmes such as urban agriculture, cultured meat and microbial protein production under the Research, Innovation and Enterprise 2020 Plan. And Singaporeans were the first in the region to embrace Impossible Foods’ plant-based burger and JUST’s mung bean-based eggs.
Mr Avinash Aswani, the CEO of superfood drink mixes company LVL Life, says: “Singapore is the best positioned in the region to trial these products. The country has a high number of wealthy consumers and forward-thinking consumers, who are thinking not just in terms of how can they satisfy their hunger, but what they’re putting into their mouths, where does it come from originally, and how does the production of that food impact the larger environment.”
We look at three young companies – all under three years old – that are trying to change the way we eat with their plant-based foods.
Karana: Making meat out of jackfruit
WHEN Blair Crichton was four years old, he found out where meat came from – and promptly decided to turn vegetarian. In his early teens, he started to eat meat again. But after writing an undergraduate thesis on the moral value of animals, he reverted to vegetarianism.
“I haven’t eaten meat since I was 19,” says the Hong Kong-born entrepreneur, now 35.
One of his favourite dishes as a teenager, however, was dim sum. He has many fond memories of eating plate after plate of pork dumplings with his friends, on the streets of Hong Kong.
Now a vegan, Mr Crichton has long looked for meat alternatives that approximated the taste of pork. But none in the market, he felt, passed muster.
So when his friend Dan Riegler told him of jackfruit dishes that act as meat substitutes in certain Asian cultures, both men thought that this was the solution.
Mr Crichton says: “Unripe jackfruit is perfect because it has a great meaty texture and a neutral flavour, and it absorbs spices and sauces very well. You can cook, chunk and shred it like pork or chicken. And, best of all, it is high in fibre; low in calories, cholesterol and fat; rich in magnesium (which aids the absorption of calcium); and contains calcium, iron and potassium.”
The men launched their startup Karana in 2018. (“Karana” comes from a Sanskrit word that means “doing” and a Balinese phrase that refers to achieving balance with nature as a route to prosperity.)
Using sustainably-sourced Sri Lankan jackfruit, Karana created its first product, a whole plant-based pork, which will be launched in the coming weeks.
Mr Crichton is eager to make a distinction between “whole plant-based” and “plant-based”: Whereas most plant-based meats involved heavily processing soy, peas, mung beans and other plant ingredients to acquire the requisite meat texture, Karana enhances the jackfruit’s meaty texture without chemicals or heavy processing.
Earlier this year, the company announced it had attracted US$1.7 million in seed round funding, raising capital from Filipino food tycoon Henry Soesanto, Big Idea Ventures (backed by Temasek Holdings) and other investors.
Karana has also partnered with various chefs from establishments such as Grain Traders and Cloudstreet and Singapore hotels Grand Hyatt, Fairmont and Shangri-La to work with its product. The pork substitute will debut in restaurants and hotels before being made available to retail consumers.
Mr Crichton says: “Pork is the most consumed meat in Asia. Unfortunately, Asia is also home to 60 per cent of the world’s diabetics, and pork plays a role in that. And the thing is, in food-secure countries, most people are already consuming too much protein (which pork is rich in) and too little fibre (which Karana meat is rich in).”
In the meantime, Karana is also busy developing a range of pork dumplings and baos. When this comes to market, Mr Crichton will finally be able to indulge in the comfort food of his youth again.
Confetti: Rescuing ‘ugly’ veggies
WHEN she was 27, Betty Lu travelled the world for three-and-a-half years. While in Canada, she started making vegetable snacks to bring on numerous hiking trips up in the mountains of British Columbia.
Her experimentation of homemade vegetable chips infused with Singaporean recipes proved so popular with friends and neighbours, that she decided to return to Singapore and open a company called Confetti Fine Foods to make vegetable snacks on a full-time basis.
The snacks, crafted at a low temperature to retain their nutrients, have been particularly popular among parents whose kids hate vegetables. Presented as colourful chips in tasty flavours, the chips help break down their resistance, and habituate them to the taste of carrots, beets, okras and radishes.
The best part of it all is this: The chips they are eating were “ugly” vegetables – misshapen specimens that are perfectly edible but deemed too unattractive to be stocked in supermarkets. Indeed, some 40 per cent of all fruits and vegetables are typically discarded because they don’t meet the exacting cosmetic standards of retailers. “So we take them, slice them, turn them into chips – and people love them,” says Ms Lu. “For retailers, these vegetables are too small or too big or too ugly to sell. For us, they are delicious, highly nutritious, high-in-fibre, gluten-free and vegan-friendly produce that deserves to be celebrated and consumed.”
Confetti Fine Foods has veggie chips and shiitake mushroom chips in various flavours such as Teriyaki BBQ, Tandoori Curry, Summer Truffle and Green Curry to “reflect the rich diversity of Singapore’s communities”, says Ms Lu. The company is headquartered in Singapore and plans to set up subsidiaries in the USA and UK in 2021.
For the first-time entrepreneur who’s now 32, the journey has been full of “challenges and pitfalls”. But her hard work is finally paying off: NTUC Fairprice will be stocking Confetti Snacks on its supermarket shelves in late October, while Shell Select stores and Meidi-Ya supermarkets are already seeing healthy traction for Confetti products on theirs.
Now there is also interest from supermarket chains in the US, Europe, Australia and the Middle East, which see Confetti Snacks as an alternative to popular but less healthy offerings such as potato chips and candy.
“One of the hard parts of my job has been to get prime placement for Confetti in strategic channels. Putting our chips on these shelves sometimes means removing something else. So shelf space is very valuable . . . But retailers can see that our product range would enhance their snack assortment and make the consumer retail experience more exciting.”
She estimates that Confetti would be able to sell at least 2 million bags of chips in 2021, with a projected revenue of US$6.7 million. “A lot of people are still working from home . . . and people need healthy snacks as a form of ‘permissible’ indulgence.”
Like many young startups with an eye on the future, Confetti is committed to social causes, donating a portion of its proceeds to help the environment and alleviate world hunger. It is also partnering with organisations such as 1 For A Better Planet, Upcycled Food Association, Business For Good and the Centre For A Responsible Future to create a positive impact on the world.
LVL Life: Harnessing ancient superfoods
THE pandemic has been unkind to most industries – but not the health food industry, which has seen an unprecedented demand for its products. LVL Life, which sells superfood powder blends, has seen e-commerce sales surge by as much as a 100 per cent in the circuit breaker months. The company, which was created in June 2019, sells drink mixes containing long-recognised superfoods such as moringa, matcha, baobab, turmeric and ashwagandha.
CEO Avinash Aswani says: “There seems to be an acceleration towards plant-based foods right now. I think the idea of the coronavirus coming from an animal source is making people even more wary of meats at the moments. It has now got to the point where people don’t want to go out and buy pork. But there is this general sense of wanting to move towards more plant-based products – and that’s boosting our sales.”
Mr Aswani and his co-founder Rohit Nanwani started the Singapore company because they wanted a drink mix that complemented their active lifestyle which include gym and sports after a long day at work. The ones in the market, they felt, were missing many of the superfoods in Asia, Africa and South America that have been consumed for centuries.
Its Raw Focus+ blend, for instance, contains matcha from Japan, and moringa and brahmi from India, all of which are traditionally believed to improve your focus, memory and ability to absorb information.
Its Natural Immunity+ contains orange, baobab, camu camu, turmeric and holy basil – powerhouse foods that are either high in Vitamin C or effective in fighting inflammation and supporting gut health.
Mr Aswani says: “We import much of our ingredients from their native countries. These ingredients have been cultivated in these countries for hundreds of years, and that correlates to a high quality. In the case of moringa, turmeric and ashwagandha, we import from India. Matcha we get from Japan. Baobab we import from South Africa, and maca, cacao, and chia seeds from Peru.”
Mr Aswani and Mr Nanwani are fourth-generation family members of the Tolaram Group, a Singapore-headquartered conglomerate that sells various products around the world, from instant noodles in Nigeria to consumer goods in Estonia.
Mr Aswani was born in Indonesia and has lived in several countries including Estonia, Russia and India. He has a strong awareness of the norms and values of different cultures, and what the various markets want. Singapore, he says, is a leader in embracing plant-based foods as people here have become increasingly circumspect of their food sources.
He says: “When I lived in Indonesia, people there can only do one or two things in a day – the rest of the time you’re caught in traffic. People in Singapore live differently, in that they’re able to do many different things in a day. They’re busy bodies and they’re accustomed to living out of their bags. They want food that is convenient, highly nutritional and catering to their daily functional needs . . . That’s where we come in.”
This article was originally published in The Business Times.