Bryan Tracy, a chemical and biological engineer, found himself inspired by the gorilla.
The ape is one humans' closest relatives in terms of DNA and capabilities. It is known for being strong, powerful, healthy and full of vitality. But if humans ate like gorillas, they would be the exact opposite: sickly, weak, lethargic. Gorillas eat a mostly vegetarian diet of fruit, bamboo shoots and stems. Humans need much more protein to thrive.
Tracy examined gorillas and cows — another powerful herbivore that seems to defy what people know about nutrition. How can they thrive with a diet that would make a human ill?
What he found in these animals was an active microbiome. Gorillas and cows have a large amount of microorganisms in their digestive system that literally brews the plants they eat into the proteins their bodies need, Tracy said.
"So we said, 'Well, why can't we essentially take that out of the digestive system and do the same thing?' " Tracy said. "Find the protein specialists that can eat plant fibers — low-cost calories — ...feed that to a microorganism, have the microorganisms make incredibly nutritious protein. And that's exactly what we've discovered inside of these microbiomes."
Tracy and his company, Superbrewed Food, are making these microorganisms through fermentation as a protein for people to consume. Superbrewed Food has been operating in stealth mode for about three years, previously under the name White Dog Labs. As the company has worked its way through R&D, it has also raised $45 million in capital and acquired a high-capacity production facility in Minnesota.
Superbrewed Food's first products — dairy-free milk and cheeses made with the company's protein, as well as a protein powder — are expected to hit the market in the second half of this year, pending regulatory approval of the protein ingredient from the Food and Drug Administration. By operating in stealth mode, Tracy said the company has a manufacturing footprint sizable enough to make a product that's competitive in price from the beginning. It is finalizing designs, packaging and formulations now. Tracy said he is working the most on how to best launch products with a protein he thinks could be a game-changer in the analogs space, which is the main reason why Superbrewed Food is going on the market as a CPG product.
"We're going to be spending the next eight months diligently working with our branding and PR group and bringing more expertise in health to most appropriately position ourselves, because we get one shot at this, frankly, to really share that story," he said.
A super-powered protein and a 'killer app'
This fermented protein ingredient is unique in many ways.
It can convert plant fibers and starches into more than 85% complete protein by weight. It also is high in essential vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin B12 — this is important, Tracy said, because plant-based foods don't contain this nutrient. One teaspoon of the protein ingredient can provide a person with 30% of the vitamin B12 they need for the day, he said. It has a concentration of branched chain amino acid that is greater than that in whey protein isolate.
Some of this protein, he said, actually is found in the human gut. Tracy said there is a lot that is still unknown about the microbiome, including why there isn't more of this same protein naturally occurring in humans.
"I think we can all agree that our food system has really impacted our gut health," Tracy said. "And so if you look at it from what's the most available, lowest cost sort of food available to the general public today, it doesn't support such good gut health. So effectively, we've taken good gut health, and we feed it directly to you."
The protein, which is fermented from corn and separated without the need for solvents, is very clean and with a minimal taste. Tracy said it's been classified as having a buttery, warm umami flavor — making dairy analogs a natural place to introduce it. The ingredient pairs well from a flavor and performance perspective with milk, cheese, cream and yogurt, according to the company.
Superbrewed Food's production facility is very similar to a beer brewery in terms of equipment type and function, Tracy said. While the process to ferment the protein is vastly different than alcohol, the company was able to use production equipment that is already standard, which kept the costs to scale up relatively low. The Minnesota facility is next door to a plant making ethanol for finished products. This increases its sustainability in terms of resource use and utility costs, Tracy said, but it also will reduce waste, since the ethanol plant will use the waste from Superbrewed Food.
All of this means that Superbrewed Food can quickly produce protein at scale and at a relatively low cost — meaning its products at launch are likely to have prices comparable to milks and cheeses already on the market.
When Superbrewed Food's line launches, the company plans to tell consumers the nutritional story, offering evidence for the claims and comparing it to other plant-based products. Tracy believes the nutritional aspects, taste and cost are key to winning consumers over. And once consumers are familiar with the product, Superbrewed Food will likely work to get it used as an ingredient in products from large CPG companies. Tracy said he's already been approached by different manufacturers interested in using his protein.
As Superbrewed Food prepares to come on the market, Tracy said he's ready to plan its next steps for expansion.
"We're very bullish on what our great ingredient can deliver and the products that we've been developing in our own hand," he said. "Now's the time for us to not just find investment, but also partnerships to get ourselves to market faster for the benefit of everyone involved."