What if it was possible to get the same nutritional value of leafy green vegetables but from the food we love to eat? The folks at Leaft Foods think they might have found a solution.
Founded in 2019, by John and Maury Leyland Penno, Leaft Foods Ltd is aiming to create a range of new food products using the plant protein RuBisCO.
The protein is found in all green leafy vegetables and has high nutritional value and a lighter environmental footprint than traditional animal or grain-based sources of protein.
General manager Ross Milne says there are two drivers behind what the company is trying to achieve.
“Firstly, we’re trying to extract a protein out of green leafy material to use as a food ingredient. The RuBisCo protein that we are targeting is relatively well-known to the plant science community but not to food consumers,” he says.
“RuBisCo is a really interesting protein. It is white, tasteless, and odourless. While that might not sound very interesting from a food point of view, from a protein ingredient perspective, those are some fantastic qualities.”
The protein has an amino acid profile which is comparable to an animal derived protein – often one of the challenges faced by others working with current plant protein products.
“We’re also excited about the protein functionality that we’ve seen to date. Its gelling and foaming properties and its solubility. From a food technology point of view that’s what gets us really excited because it opens up doors to other opportunities in terms of how we could integrate it into a whole raft of products.
“Secondly, what we’re looking to develop is a new opportunity for our farmers to increase the environmental sustainability of our food systems.
“We are experts in New Zealand in terms of growing pasture. Our focus at Leaft Foods is to utilise our expertise, work with pastures that farmers are already familiar with and grab the protein from there.”
Somewhat ironically, Milne moved back from Copenhagen, Denmark to work on this project after leaving his job in the dairy industry. “I slipped through the fence onto the other side,” he says with a laugh.
“It’s a privilege to work on something like this. It’s very aspirational in that we want to make a real positive impact on the environment and give farmers an opportunity to be involved in plant protein, in conjunction with their existing farming systems, in an economically viable way. For me personally, to have the opportunity to come back to New Zealand and be involved in and lead a project like this, is really exciting.”
An early indicator that they were on to something special came when the Leaft team used their ingredient to make a pavlova. And it worked!
“We’re a Kiwi start-up company so we thought what better way to test our product.
“Egg white protein is really interesting because it can form a bake stable foam, so if you want to use a substitute it has to also be something that also does this. We noticed that our protein had this potential.”
Other plant-based egg substitutes have the basic functionality however are carbohydrate-based rather than protein based and therefore do not match the nutrition profile of egg white.
“We substituted out the egg white and put in our protein to deliver on both functionality and nutrition with great results on the first test bake,” Milne says.
The trial pavlova was enjoyed at the Leaft Foods end of year Christmas party in 2019 by the team who were pleased with the results.
“It got us really excited because it demonstrated what our product could do. Now it’s about building on the research to develop a paddock to plate commercial food system. We know the opportunity is there, and we still have a significant research and development program ahead of us.”
Milne hopes New Zealanders will see this research and development as an opportunity and will step up to take on challenges and changes and lead the way on journey to build a new industry.
“There’s a lot of synergies between existing agricultural systems and what we’re working on and they can be co-beneficial. There is a unique opportunity, we’ve got really great people in New Zealand and there is a significant shift in consumer habits globally. Therefore, if we maintain our momentum on this, we have the opportunity to develop new products and be ahead of the game.”