In high school biology class, teenagers learn about many different one-celled organisms. And while some of these details are memorized for tests and projects, people who don't pursue scientific careers tend to forget about them.
With its new food and ingredients brand Eunite, Noblegen is putting one of those organisms center stage. The company is focused on turning euglena gracilis into a protein-rich ingredient. Earlier this year, Eunite launched its first product, a powdered egg substitute called the egg, which combines spray-dried euglena with pea protein and other ingredients.
Noblegen CEO Adam Noble knows that most consumers probably aren't sure what euglena is — beyond something they probably talked about in biology class. And while the organism that is the star of the product can also be referred to as algae — something most consumers have a clearer mental reference to — the company is proudly calling its signature ingredient euglena. Eunite's website defines it as "an ancient, non-GMO microorganism you probably heard of in biology class, but didn’t know it could be a protein-rich food ingredient, until now."
Noble told Food Dive they are hoping to educate consumers, as well as be transparent. And, he said, using the correct terminology shows the differences in their product.
"We could take the easy road and just focus in on algae — but us championing the education and science of helping consumers understand what you mean it is, and why understanding the difference of why it's not just a normal algae, and to call it out specifically because of how unique and exciting it is — is worth asking that question," Noble told Food Dive. "So from what we've seen is that the consumers appreciate the transparency, and if they don't understand what euglena is, they want to ask and learn more."
As consumers and manufacturers become more educated, Noble hopes euglena will work its way into a host of products as a sustainable way to add protein, nutrition and texture. Through Eunite, Noblegen is testing its products on two tracks: One going directly to consumers for their feedback, and one working with manufacturers to show them what the products can do.
"The main objective this year for the Eunite brand is to be able to demonstrate the breadth of applications that our ingredients are able to be used in and the exciting new opportunities in food that we're creating with the ingredients as well," he said. "That's really getting as many products in there as possible, and working through that development [and] iterative process with the consumers as quickly as we can. And on the commercial partner front, [it] is really navigating that with them and getting to market as aggressively as they are comfortable with."
As a scientist, Noble has worked with euglena about four years. Noblegen was founded on the premise of using euglena to mitigate environmental issues, specifically as a component in water treatment. However, Noble said, the euglena turned out to not be needed for that work, so the company found itself with large amounts of nutrient-rich biomass with no specific application.
Looking at the food and beverage industry's current need for sustainable, nutrient-rich ingredients, Noble said the company began to zero in on developing it for consumption. Euglena is a source of complete protein, it's vegan friendly and can be produced with minimal environmental impact.
"Euglena, from an evolutionary standpoint, evolved before we had plants and animals existing here. So it was the precursor to the more complex organisms that we rely upon for food today," Noble said. "So as an alternative [protein] source, it's able to be a one-size-fits-all solution ... in some cases. And being able to leverage that ancient metabolism that underlies the main sources that we rely upon today for food is a really exciting opportunity for us to go back to the basics, and kind of [a] similar philosophy to what's been applied to ancient grains, but on a whole other level."
As an ingredient, euglena also doesn't have some of the challenges that some plant-based proteins have. Noble said the ingredient has a smoother mouthfeel than some plant proteins, which can feel chalky to the consumer. It also does have its own taste, and Noble said the company has been working with some of the top flavoring companies to develop masking solutions. However, unlike some plant-based protein ingredients, masking its natural taste is not always vital. Noble said there are no flavor masking ingredients in the egg, but masking is necessary in order to adapt euglena to some of the other uses the company is considering.
"Euglena, from an evolutionary standpoint, evolved before we had plants and animals existing here. ... And being able to leverage that ancient metabolism that underlies the main sources that we rely upon today for food is a really exciting opportunity for us to go back to the basics."
Noblegen ferments its own euglena in equipment that looks similar to what's used in breweries, Noble said. The one-celled organism, which can be produced in weeks, is also easily adapted to different uses.
After the euglena develops, Noblegen harvests and spray dries it. This process forms the euglena flour; no milling is required. Noble said his team is working on creating other ingredients out of the flour, including texturizers and oils. Noblegen received self-affirmed generally recognized as safe status for euglena flour last year, and it is currently pursuing a full FDA certification.
The euglena flour is yellow and can, in that form, easily be used for the egg.
Folding consumers into R&D early
The egg is Eunite's first product for a few reasons, Noble said.
Development of the product happened rather quickly, and it's a product that highlights euglena's natural benefits. Eggs are also a major ingredient in many processed food items. Noble said euglena could present a chance for manufacturers to use a sustainable substitute for real eggs. And when it comes to rethinking the food system to be more sustainable, he believes it makes sense to reduce the industry's dependence on chickens for eggs.
Noble said he envisions Eunite as primarily a supplier to manufacturers — the company plans that the Eunite logo will be on CPG product labels that use its ingredients — but a limited number of consumers are already purchasing prototypes of the egg through Eunite to use and offer feedback.
While consumers are a vital part of any R&D strategy, Noble said he knows this approach is unconventional because it's bringing them into the fold much sooner than usual. Given the novelty of the ingredient and the many uses for it, Noble said product development benefits from them being part of it earlier.
"It's part of the strategy to brand our ingredients, so then consumers can understand the food products that they see our ingredients in by seeing that the Eunite brand associated with them," Noble said. "Then [there is] the other part of being able to open up the development pipeline and give the invitation to having consumers part of that process. And [then] being able to have that iterative feedback — and even a prioritization ... [of] input from a consumer base that is eager to be participating in rebuilding their food."
So far, Noble said, consumer reaction to the egg has been positive — and some have been pleasantly surprised, given they may expect a product derived from an algae to be "bright green pond scum." Manufacturers are amazed at how much Noblegen is working with consumers at this point, Noble said. They are also intrigued with the product and what it can do, he said. The company has had many conversations with manufacturers about the possibilities of euglena as an ingredient, though no agreements have been signed yet.
Euglena's potential in the food and beverage industry is enormous, Noble said. The egg is a first step, but euglena could also be used in products including protein bars and beverages, as well as in dairy and meat analogs.
Noble said the company is currently working on "staple food products," as well as new takes on products familiar to consumers of plant-based products and some products that have never been made with alternatives. Noble said he's looking forward to "new opportunities we have in food to crank things up to a whole other level from a sustainability and a replacement standpoint."
"It's part of the strategy to brand our ingredients, so then consumers can understand the food products that they see our ingredients in by seeing that the Eunite brand associated with them."
But, Noble said, the consumer is going to remain at the heart of what Noblegen develops. The company will continue to use Eunite as a testing ground for products and a soundboard for feedback. And, Noble said, when deciding what ingredients to get into products, the company will pay the closest attention to Eunite data on consumer priorities.
"So then, when our commercial partners identify a product fit and a launch opportunity that they can be leveraging, the consumer insights that we've already built around our ingredients — and potentially the same food product or category that they're wanting to launch in — [they will] be able to go through the market with much more speed and confidence," Noble said.