While soybeans have been lauded as a rich source of protein, high in fiber and low in saturated fat, the popular ingredient found in everything from alternative milks to plant-based meats could be loaded with even more valuable nutrients that are a boon to human health.
A new partnership announced Wednesday between upstart Brightseed and dairy giant Danone North America is harnessing the power of artificial intelligence in an attempt to unlock those hidden nutrients. Brightseed, a three-year-old upstart, acts as a "search engine," co-founder and chief operating officer Sofia Elizondo said, to comb through thousands of phytonutrients, or small molecules, to discover those that could potentially have the biggest health and nutrition benefits in humans.
Danone North America could then consider incorporating the most promising ones into its plant-based brands like Silk and So Delicious or recent extensions into the plant-based space by Oikos and Activia.
"We don't know everything that's in there" even in plants such as soybeans that we know a lot about, Elizondo told Food Dive. "That is the exciting part of our partnership with Danone. ... Plants are highly, highly complex and pretty fickle."
A plant's genome can be eight-times at complicated as a human one because it not only helps the plant grow, but do other life-sustaining tasks like attract bees for pollination or repel pests.
The same plant, she said, can exhibit different characteristics depending on the climate or the soil that it is grown in. These differences can affect the plant and the potential health attributes it exhibits, meaning the same crop could have different benefits or varying levels of expression. As a result, Brightseed and Danone North America are first studying soybean varieties from around the world for differences in their nutrient and taste profiles.
Takoua Debeche, vice president of research and innovation at Danone North America, said partnerships like the one with Brightseed are an important way for the company to continue improving the taste, texture and nutritional characteristics of its plant-based offerings. This takes on greater significance as consumers incorporate more plant-based foods into their diets.
While she declined to detail the findings uncovered so far, Debeche said so far they are "very promising. ... The new insights that Brightseed is bringing, even if they are very preliminary, are actually revealing heath opportunities beyond ... what is already known," she said. "Some of the health benefits are very much in line with what our consumers are interested in."
While the two companies are beginning with soy, Debeche said Danone North America and Brightseed are "envisioning expanding the scope [of the partnership] in the future" to include widely used plant-based crops like almonds, coconuts, peas and oats, or potentially expand into more emerging plant ingredients.
Once the molecules of a soybean or another ingredient are mapped to uncover the human health benefits, Danone North America and Brightseed will validate the findings either in a lab or through human trials to analyze how the nutrients impact a person's health.
Danone is the latest in a growing number of food companies to incorporate AI to quicken the pace of product discovery or to better understand the ingredients that go into their products. With countless bits of information and pressure to innovate and get products to market faster, companies are no longer just relying on traditional methods of product R&D and testing.
Conagra Brands, the maker of Healthy Choice, Reddi-wip and Slim Jim, uses an AI-enabled platform to identify consumer preferences and release on-trend products to market in a fraction of the time. And McCormick & Co. has partnered with technology giant IBM to use artificial intelligence to comb through its data faster and more effectively by knowing which ingredients work together or which ones can be used as substitutes for each other. McCormick launched its first three AI-enabled products last spring.
For its part, Danone North America has unveiled new products this year that address consumer demand for lower sugar or alternative sweetener options, different textures, as well as more plant-based varieties.
Oikos tapped into the nut butter trend with almond butter and a drinkable energy option high in protein, potassium and calcium and as much caffeine as a cup of coffee. For its Activia brand, it's rolling out versions with less sugar and new flavors, a drinkable smoothie and a dairy-free option made with almond milk.
Earlier this year, Danone North America entered the ready-to-drink coffee arena with Silk lattes and brought to market a plant-based heavy whipping cream alternative under the banner. The company also has started to build the oat milk category with beverages, yogurt alternatives, coffee creamers and frozen desserts.
As competition heats up in yogurt, and specifically plant-based offerings, Danone North America is optimistic working with Brightseed could give it an advantage over its competitors..
"The discoveries that we make with Brightseed are certainly going to be integrated into our innovation pipelines in the future," Debeche said. "Innovation is really an important driver of growth in our category."