Jeff Nobbs has spent much of his life zeroing in on what is making both people and the planet sick, and he thinks he's found it: cooking oils.
Many cooking oils on the market today have negative impacts on human health, exposing people to chemical compounds that can lead to chronic illness, he said. And to grow the commodity crops pressed for those oils, acres of forest are clear-cut to make way for new farmland.
But Nobbs says he has found the solution through fermentation. He formed a company, Zero Acre Farms, and put together a team of professionals, scientific and medical advisers and investors who share his goals. The company emerged from stealth on Wednesday, announcing its mission, plans to launch a product later this year and a $37 million Series A funding round.
Zero Acre uses a method very similar to traditional fermentation to create variations on natural oils that it says perform well in a variety of functions and do not have an adverse effect on human health. Nobbs said the company isn't using fermentation methods to recreate something that is currently on the market.
"We're creating a new category of healthy oils and fats that aren't vegetable oils and aren't animal fats," he said. "They're a new category of oils and fats made by fermentation. And the reason we're doing that is because we don't think there's any vegetable oil out there that's suitable for human consumption."
Nobbs' long-term goal for Zero Acre Farms is to get consumers to understand the problems with traditional vegetable oils and start demanding alternatives for home cooking, in CPGs and at restaurants. And Big (Vegetable) Oil can find other uses.
"These oils used to be used in industrial applications and then started to be marketed as human foods, so ideally, they go back to being industrial products, or not food products," Nobbs said. "Whether it's our products or someone else's, our dream is that we can go to a restaurant, we can eat a bag of chips, and it doesn't contain ingredients that actively harm us and harm our planet."
Improving on oil
Nobbs first became interested in the topic of cooking oil after losing both of his parents to chronic disease at a young age. He said he spent the past decade researching the root causes of these sorts of health conditions and what can be done to prevent them.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, six in 10 adults in the U.S. currently have at least one chronic disease. Four in 10 have two or more. In Nobbs' research into the emergence of these kinds of illnesses, he found that as the general consumption of vegetable oils increased, so did the general prevalence of chronic disease.
Zero Acre Farms uses fermentation to basically create a large quantity of "good fats," which it says do not have a detrimental affect on the body. These are fats that can be naturally occurring, but don't introduce components that could spark inflammation and other problems in the body, Nobbs said.
"It's almost like a bunch of microscopic avocados," Nobbs said. "Through this fermentation process, there's abundant lipids or oils and fats. ...Like brewing beer, but we're brewing fat."
There's also a distinct environmental reason to move away from vegetable oils. The soybeans, rapeseed and sunflower seeds that become vegetable oils come from huge fields dedicated to the crops. To get more area to grow these commodity crops, forests are clear-cut and crops are planted. A 2013 report from the European Commission indicated that oil crops represented 63% of agricultural deforestation worldwide; Nobbs said this means that vegetable oils are responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than any other crop. According to Our World In Data, oil crops use the second largest amount of agricultural land in the world.
Zero Acre Farms, which is headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area, has a facility for research but has partnerships with manufacturers to make its products, Nobbs said. Through current partnerships, it has scaled production to "thousands and thousands of liters" — enough, Nobbs hopes, to bring a product to market this year and meet demand.
The company is aiming for its products to be used in all aspects of food production — consumers at home, restaurants and manufacturers. Nobbs said its first product will be targeted at consumers to educate them on the dangers of existing vegetable oils. When consumers understand how vegetable oils harm their bodies and the environment, Nobbs said they are likely to demand that restaurants and manufacturers start using alternatives. Educated consumers will push the issue, meaning wider adoption will come more quickly, he believes.
At the beginning, Zero Acre Farms' oils will be more expensive than other more common vegetable oils, with a price point on par with extra virgin olive or avocado oils, Nobbs said. As the company scales, he expects that to come down. The first planned product has also already received generally recognized as safe status from the FDA, he said.
Nobbs thinks consumers who understand the issues at hand will be enthusiastic about Zero Acre's oil. Looking back a couple of decades, Nobbs said, recent history has shown educated consumers can make a market for a new type of product.
"Beef was just beef and eggs were just eggs. There was no pasture-raised, or certified anything, or organic or grass-fed," he said. "And now consumers are willing to pay a premium for products that they perceive is better for them and/or better for the planet. I think step one is really shining a light on the issues with vegetable oils and just educating about what we're doing and why it's different. And if that strikes a chord, great — and people can see us as a better option."
Growing a company and market
While Nobbs is starting his sales pitch to consumers and his company has been operating in stealth mode for two years, he has talked to some in the foodservice and manufacturing businesses about Zero Acre Farms.
"Usually the question is, 'Can you pull this off?' " he said. "And so we need to prove that and show that we can."
Prevailing attitudes in the food and restaurant businesses about vegetable oil, coupled with educated consumers, will help, Nobbs said. After all, he continued, nobody is excited about their soybean oil. Chefs and formulators do not hold their canola oil dear. Cooking oils are more of a "necessary evil," he said — something that people need, and which they choose based on current available supply and price, rather than for health and environmental reasons.
The oversubscribed $37 million Series A funding round will help Zero Acre ramp up its operations in order to get ready to start competing with vegetable oil. It was co-led by Lowercarbon Capital and Fifty Years, but also had participation from S2G Ventures, Virgin Group, Collaborative Fund, Robert Downey Jr.'s FootPrint Coalition Ventures and Chef Dan Barber.
"We're creating a new category of healthy oils and fats that aren't vegetable oils and aren't animal fats. ...And the reason we're doing that is because we don't think there's any vegetable oil out there that's suitable for human consumption."
Co-founder and CEO, Zero Acre Farms
Nobbs said the most pressing use of those funds will be to double the company's employees, who currently number around 15. The money will also go toward helping Zero Acre Farms develop its product line, improve the chemical composition to be healthier and bring down the cost to improve accessibility.
Zero Acre Farms has been working with some members of the foodservice community in its early days. Nobbs is the co-founder of San Francisco natural food restaurant Kitava, so he is plugged into what foodservice operators want in their oils. Nobbs would not say what the company has been doing in that vein so far, but said restaurants can make changes in their oils much more easily than food manufacturers, who need new processes, labels and sometimes changes to their production lines.
Within a few years, Nobbs hopes that Zero Acre's oils and fats will be prevalent in the consumer market and restaurants, and be making their way into CPG products. He's hopeful adoption of his products will be quick, especially because oils really don't add much to the final taste of food.
"There's no compromise you have to make," he said. "Your health gets an upgrade and you save a bunch of acres of rainforest, and if anything, your food starts tasting better."