When Isabelle Steichen moved to the United States from Europe in 2013, people didn't think it was so strange that she was a vegan.
What they cared about, she told Food Dive, was where she was getting her protein. And now, Steichen and Alexandra Dempster are starting a brand that answers that very American question with a very European solution.
Steichen and Dempster's new company, Lupii, makes protein bars from the lupini bean, which is traditionally grown and eaten in the Mediterranean basin. The ingredient is not well known outside that region of Europe, where it is commonly a pickled snack and flour ingredient to enrich baked goods. Steichen joked the bean seems to have been "born in the wrong place," since Americans tend to be more concerned about getting a full nutritional experience when eating plant-based food.
"It's higher in protein than soy, which is generally considered the highest source of plant protein," Steichen said. "... It's low in carbohydrates, packed with fiber, all the minerals. And then in terms of an ingredient, it's also super sustainable to grow ... And so, from so many angles, it's just an incredible ingredient."
Aaron Gatti, founder and CEO of Brami Snacks, has made the nutritional value of the lupini bean a vital part of his company's story. Brami, which launched in 2016, makes snackable lupini beans in pouches. The company soaks and brines them so they can be eaten whole, a sort of al dente large bean.
Brami's packaging features a cartoon bean. On the Garlic and Rosemary variety, it has the sword, shield and helmet of a Roman soldier, which was once featured on every package as a hat tip to the ingredient's history.
"It's actually said by some to be the most ancient legume known to humankind," Gatti told Food Dive. "[It] dates back to ancient Egypt, and the ancient Romans used them as portable protein for their warriors, hence our 'Bramus Romanus' little bean character and our positioning as to this being the answer to the modern-day warrior. And they lived on since the Roman times in the Mediterranean as a fresh bean aperitif snack, like edamame in Japan. In fact, you could say that they are the Mediterranean answer to edamame."
As more food makers bring international influences to products, and more consumers look for plant-based protein that tastes good and packs in nutritional value, lupini beans are getting more notice. Lupii and Brami are two companies on top of this trend, which could spread to many other applications because of the bean's versatility.
Brami: Lupini invictus
Gatti told Food Dive he grew up practically addicted to snacking on lupini beans, which were always available in Italy, where he often visited family. As a child, he didn't know much about their health benefits. He just knew that they tasted good and were fun to eat.
It was only as an adult — after his wife who was on a plant-based diet sampled the beans herself in Italy and pushed Gatti to start Brami — that he learned just how good lupini beans were from a nutritional standpoint. According to information compiled by Superfoodly, lupini beans have more protein in a 100-calorie serving than other popular legumes including chickpeas and soybeans. They are complete proteins and are high in fiber.
"And so that was kind of the 'a-ha' moment," Gatti said. "...I personally faced this daily snack challenge when I worked in the office grind. At 4 p.m., I would be like, 'What the heck can I snack on that's really going to satisfy my hunger without ruining my diet?' You have carrots and celery on one hand that are boring and don't have protein. And now you have a lot of better-for-you snacks, but they're better in the sense of the better ingredient deck, which is great, but they're still loaded with calories, carbs, fat or sugar. And so unless you're going to modify your meal plan, you're kind of risking going over your normal caloric intake."
As Brami prepares the beans, they are minimally processed with few ingredients and additives. Gatti touted the clean label on his snacks, saying he'd always wanted to bring some of the "magic" of fresh food like he'd enjoyed in Italy back to the United States.
"We think real food that hasn't been engineered is always going to be better for you, and it's really like a Mediterranean slow food that we have made ready to eat for everyday purposes."
Founder and CEO, Brami Snacks
Gatti said as Brami got started, it was difficult to get some consumers to expect a minimally processed snack that was a chewy bean, considering many other snacks are dry and crunchy and other beans are often soft and mushy. Some grocery buyers were unsure that consumers would have any enthusiasm about beans for snacks.
However, the simplicity of the snack and the nutritional bona fides won over other grocery buyers and consumers. Whole Foods Market quickly picked up the brand and found that it sold. Springboard, Kraft Heinz's incubator program, saw Brami's potential and chose it for its most recent class. Now, Gatti said he hears feedback from all kinds of consumers who enjoy the taste, the snackability and the nutritional profile of lupini.
Brami has quite a bit in the works for lupini beans. The brand used Chile-grown beans for a couple years, but last year made the switch to all Italian beans, which Gatti said are higher quality. There may also be more lupini products on the way from Brami.
"We think real food that hasn't been engineered is always going to be better for you, and it's really like a Mediterranean slow food that we have made ready to eat for everyday purposes," he said.
Lupii: A new plant-based protein comes to vegan bars
Steichen, a well-known vegan blogger and podcast host behind The Plantiful and online meal planning company Buddhalicious, met Dempster last year. Dempster has a background in Big Food, having worked for PepsiCo as senior global marketing manager and prior to that doing marketing and sales work for Carlsberg Group. They described their meeting to Food Dive as "love at first sight," where they bonded over the need to make highly nutritious plant-based food more available to people.
They united behind this idea to create Lupii, a lupini bean snack company that officially launched this month. Lupii bars, which can be purchased online or at a handful of stores in New York, are clean-label nutrient packed snacks. There are three flavors: Tahini Lemon Cranberry, Almond Butter Cinnamon Raisin and Peanut Butter Cacao Nib. Each bar has nine to 10 grams of protein and eight or nine grams of fiber. They also are non-GMO and made with minimal ingredients. And the beans used in these bars, Steichen said, are smaller "sweet lupini," which have less natural bitterness.
Dempster told Food Dive the nutritional profile of the lupini bean makes Lupii's bars stand out in the marketplace, occupying a place where very few vegan bars can be. Protein bars often rely on whey or egg whites for some of their nutrients. When they are plant-based, they often contain heavily processed protein isolates, which Dempster said can be difficult to digest.
"You're stripping a macronutrient away from the whole food source, and we really believe in trying to get as much nutrition as possible from real whole foods that are minimally adulterated," Dempster said.
"It's higher in protein than soy, which is generally considered the highest source of plant protein. ... It's low in carbohydrates, packed with fiber, all the minerals. And then in terms of an ingredient, it's also super sustainable to grow ... And so, from so many angles, it's just an incredible ingredient."
Founder and CEO, Lupii
Steichen said that many other plant-based food products with protein are highly processed and full of extruded proteins and sugary syrups. Plant-based protein ingredients are often dried, pulverized and bleached, and don't look or taste anything like the plant from which they came. Lupini beans don't need to have many other ingredients added to be able to work with them, and they also don't need any more nutrients to enhance their health profile. Lupii also only uses dates to sweeten its products, which Steichen and Dempster touted as more natural than competitors' sweeteners.
Right now, Lupii is only making bars. Steichen and Dempster said they have many more plans for lupini bean products, especially since the bean has myriad common uses in Europe. It's often turned into flakes or flour and added to baked goods to make them more nutritious. Lupini has been made into a dairy alternative and ice cream, Steichen said. It's also been used as an ingredient in veggie burgers and to make tempeh.
While Steichen and Dempster wouldn't talk yet about their plans for future Lupii products, they said lupini is the answer to what many consumers are looking for, especially when trying to have a less animal-based diet.
"You're eating an ingredient that is very sustainable and a lot of consumers care about that, too," Steichen said. "When they eat plant based, health is a first motivator. But then environment is a second. As I mentioned, lupini is a wonderful crop that is good for their health, and so a lot of consumers are looking to think a little bit more about supporting biodiversity, and that's definitely something that we can support with our product as well."