A California-based startup upcycling sunflower seeds into high-protein, high-fiber flour recently closed a $750,000 funding round with participation from Barilla Group's venture arm BLU1877, Techstars, SOSV, The Yield Lab and a group of angel investors, AgFunder News reported.
Planetarians developed a technology that can sterilize, remove antinutrients and functionalize fiber, the site says. The flour, made from what's left over after oil is extracted from the seeds, has three times the protein and twice the fiber of wheat flour. The company says it costs the same and appeals to those looking for more plant-based protein and fewer carbohydrates in their diets.
Planetarians founder and CEO Aleh Manchuliantsau told AgFunder News the product could be good news for a company such as Barilla, which has been conducting trials with it. "If you incorporate more protein in a product, it becomes denser because of the nature of the protein. We found a sweet spot by replacing 30% of the existing flour in a recipe with our flour. At that level, it won’t change the texture or flavor," he said.
It's not difficult to see why the work Planetarians is engaged in — and the trendy niche it is occupying — would interest Barilla and other manufacturers of products containing flour. Upcycling by reclaiming items from food production that might otherwise be wasted, enriching items with protein and fiber, and offering more plant-based ingredients also check a number of important boxes for today's consumers and food makers.
The sunflower is an adaptable plant. Besides being eaten raw or roasted for a snack, sunflower seeds are turned into oil and butter, ground into flour, used as a garnish, and added to granola bars, breads and other baked goods. A surprisingly large amount — about one-quarter of all U.S production — is used in birdseed, and sunflower meal is fed to beef and dairy cattle.
Sunflower seeds are one of the healthiest snacks around. Packed with vitamins and minerals, they're also an excellent source of antioxidants and essential oils. Organic sunflower seeds are marketed as a better-for-you, natural option, and non-GMO sunflower oil is touted as having a more neutral taste and a longer shelf life than others.
Spent sunflower seeds are used for a number of purposes including animal feed, biodiesel from waste oil and biomaterials such as insulation. However, quite a bit of the crop goes to waste, so innovative upcycling for food and other useful products would be a welcome way to divert what otherwise might take up space in landfills or similar facilities.
Extending sunflower's market reach into flour could prove popular with consumers who appreciate innovative ingredients and want more protein and lower carbs. It could also save money and attract customers for sustainability-conscious companies such as Barilla, whose brand dominates the pasta market in Italy and also looms large in the U.S. The company has a longstanding interest in these issues, establishing the Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition in 2009 to study the relationship between food, nutrition and sustainability and make policy recommendations.
While sunflower flour may be a good fit for pasta, the company said the funding could also be used to develop snacks, baked goods, meat, breakfast items, dips and purees.
Planetarians is not the only company turning spent products into useful food items. Barilla has also invested in ReGrained, a Bay Area startup making granola bars with brewery leftovers and its own spent-grain flour. Rise Products also converts spent beer grain into a high-protein, high-fiber flour. Renewal Mill upcycles soybean pulp, a byproduct of organic soymilk production, into high-fiber okara flour.
More of these upcycled innovations are likely to come online as the trend develops. These products can help large food makers cut costs and enhance products in ways that appeal to today's consumers.