When world-class athlete Ricky Echanique developed autoimmune conditions and found himself unable to train, he looked to two places to help him recover: a plant-based diet and his home country of Ecuador.
Plant-based food helped him get back on his feet, and he wanted to create a functional beverage to prevent other athletes from developing the same health conditions as he did. But the most common plant-based proteins on the market couldn't really do the job he wanted, said Tara Kriese, a strategic marketing adviser working with Mikuna Foods, the company Echanique eventually started. Soy and pea have many positive attributes, but they also can cause indigestion and off-tastes, as well as be allergenic.
Echanique, part of the fourth generation of an Ecuadoran farming family, found the answer at his ancestral home and in a place he hadn't expected: a lupini variety called chocho that grows high in the Andes. It is commonly overlooked as a food source. Chocho is 54% protein by weight, according to Mikuna. It is a complete protein, contains vitamins E and D, is rich in omegas and has 300 milligrams of calcium per serving.
"When he did all the tests, he realized that what he had was, in fact, the greatest, most highly potent plant-based protein in existence," Kriese said.
Echanique started Mikuna Foods as a way to bring the nutrient-packed bean to products and food manufacturers. Mikuna currently sells protein powders that are essentially ground chocho on its website, but the company recently entered into a partnership with Elohi Strategic Advisors to help expand Mikuna's offerings to other customers.
Chocho has a lot of potential as an ingredient, Kriese said. Mikuna is hoping to both sell its own products and become an ingredient supplier. While Mikuna is currently just in the protein powder business, Kriese said chocho can also be used as a higher protein substitute for baking flour, may be extruded, and could be an easy add-in to help build nutrition quality in CPG products.
Kriese said Mikuna currently has a couple of business-to-business ingredient contracts, but is open for more. Mikuna is working with specialists and food scientists to determine the ways chocho could be used.
What is chocho?
Chocho has been a common crop in Ecuador dating back to the time of the Incas, but it's something that has almost never been used for food, Kriese said. Traditionally, chocho has been something people only ate when times were bad — both in terms of weather and financial fortunes, Kriese said.
But the commodity is loaded with positive attributes that make it attractive. Chocho grows easily. It does well during droughts, only needing rainwater to grow. It also has a long shelf life. The crop has traditionally been planted to regenerate soil after farming. Chocho is known for adding more nutrients into soil, making it a beneficial rotational crop.
Similar to the varieties of lupini beans in Europe, chocho packs a lot of nutrients into its beans. In fact, Kriese said the more adverse the conditions that chocho is grown in, the more protein and nutrients chocho contains.
"It's phenomenal environmentally," Kriese said.
After discovering the potential of chocho, Echanique spent several years both building a supply chain as well as a way to process the beans. Kriese said through his family and other connections, Echanique has access to a large supply of chocho farmed in Ecuador — enough to meet Mikuna's future needs.
Echanique also developed a way to process the chocho to remove its outer layer, which can make the bean difficult to digest. The technology also removes much of the taste from the bean, leaving behind a neutral tasting and nutritious protein powder, Kriese said.
Despite its exotic origin, Kriese said chocho as an ingredient will be priced to be competitive with other common plant-based proteins. Its social, environmental and dietary impacts, she said, also will make it more attractive.
Mikuna first launched protein powder because it was easy to produce and it meets Echanique's desire for a functional beverage to help athletes gain better nutrition, Kriese said. But much more is on the way.
The partnership with Elohi Strategic Advisers will help carve a path for Mikuna to get chocho into new places, Kriese said. The consulting firm helped do the same thing for some of today's plant-based leaders, including Greenleaf Foods and New Wave Foods.
"We have an eye for the trends and innovators who are shaping the food and beverage industries," Stephanie Lind, Elohi's founder and chief business development officer, said in a written statement. "We believe with Choc[h]o, Mikuna is bringing to market a unique plant-based superfood protein that will cause the industry to rethink their ingredients and what is truly possible for cleaner labels and enhanced nutrition.”
Mikuna's chocho powder has been available on its direct-to-consumer website, but it is also going to be appearing on grocery shelves starting next month, Kriese said. There is more going on behind the scenes with potential retail expansions and business-to-business ingredient contracts. Mikuna wants to build its brand on its regenerative sustainability aspects, Kriese said, and the company will work to ensure its ingredient applications are with manufacturers who are interested in that aspect.
"I think consumers are going to see more from our brand very, very soon," Kriese said.