PLANETARIANS Sunflower Chips
Saturday, December 1, 2018
filed under: Utilization/Trade
When Aleh Manchuliantsau was a kid, he had a dream. His dream was to eat chips whenever he wanted. He never imagined his dream would help feed the world’s population, reduce the impact on the planet and combat diet-related diseases. His secret ingredient: sunflower oil cake.
Jody Kerzman talked with the food scientist who works on upcycling food waste about his company, PLANETARIANS, and his revolutionary product, sunflower chips.
Explain the idea behind PLANETARIANS sunflower chips.
Earth’s population is expected to reach 10 billion people by the year 2050. The problems created by our growing population concern everyone, from urban planners to climate researchers, to farmers and food scientists.
The most exciting part is that the solution I’m working on doesn’t involve growing any additional crops. In late 2016, I stumbled across defatted sunflower seeds — the dry matter left after oil extraction — a 35% protein ingredient that is either completely discarded by the food industry or fed to cows, because of its hard, woodchip-like texture.
I saw tremendous inefficiency in the fact that cows are given feed that is 35% protein, when beef is only 26% protein. However, I also saw an opportunity: why not use tech to make yummy products straight from oilcake? And if we manage to do that, then we can make people healthier, reduce pressure on the land and reduce CO2 emissions.
Defatted seeds are the dry matter that is left after oil extraction from crops grown for their oil, such as sunflower, canola and cotton seeds. On average, 20 pounds of defatted seeds are created for every gallon of extracted oil. Defatted sunflower seeds repurposed into human food can provide consumers with a cheap, clean, sustainable source of plant-based protein, and add value to supplier profits.
Initially when I stumbled upon the defatted seeds, I was curious in protein. I used to pay $5,000 for a metric ton of soy protein; I could buy the same ton of oilcake for just $170. We decided to up-cycle both the oilcake and the fiber. That decision allowed us to cut the costs dramatically.
But how to make the hard, wood hip-like fiber palatable? We needed to figure out how to use sunflower oilcake in a product that humans could eat. Together with co-founder Anastasia Tkacheva, I had a theory that steam explosion might puff the fiber, while high pressure and temperature could cook and sterilize the feed grade ingredient.
Where do you get the sunflower you use?
We have been working with people at ADM and Cargill as well as an independent company in Colorado. ADM agreed to expel the oilcake for our experiments. To make feasibility tests of our theory, we came to the Food Science and Nutrition Plant of the University of Minnesota. With help from the team there we came up with something usable.
Our initial idea was to grind it into a flour, but when we looked at the chunks of oilcake, it was almost a ready-to-eat product. It was the first version of sunflower chips and the first product made using sunflower meal as the primary ingredient.
We sent our samples independently to General Mills’ Medallion Labs and Market Fresh lab. They verified the nutritional facts and that our samples are a food-grade product. That means we can commercially manufacture and sell our sunflower chips.
What makes your products stand out?
There is nothing else like our products on the market. Our sunflower chips have three times more protein, two times more fiber, and three times less fat per serving than typical potato chips. As people are eating healthier, this is something they’re looking for.
What kinds of challenges have you faced along the way?
We have been working on this idea for over a year. It’s been a challenge to get people to try our products. I left bags of sunflower chips wherever I went — gas stations, you name it — just to collect feedback. We were curious about the texture and the flavor, so we started with 72 flavors and then narrowed it down to six flavors.
Our efforts were supported by Techstars. We were accepted into accelerator, and made its founders so excited about our technology that we even managed to convince them to invest in us on demo day. The money we raised allowed us to find a co-packer in Minnesota and manufacture a first commercial run in February 2018.
Where can people find your products?
The best way to purchase our chips is online. You can buy them from our website — www.planetarians.com — or on Amazon. The benefit to ordering directly from our website is that you can subscribe and you’ll never run out!
Most of our customers want to see our products in their grocery stores, and we’re working on getting into some natural food stores. But we believe grocery is not the only channel — we see great potential for our products in schools. Our chips are healthy — they are high in fiber, high in protein. We are working right now with schools to make our products available to students. Right now we have four schools in New York who are offering sunflower chips in their vending machines.
What do your customers have to say about PLANETARIANS?
Our customers are initially very excited by the idea of recycling the oilcake.
Sunflower chips were featured on ABC, Today’s Dietician, Mind Body Green and Successful Farming. Our company was recognized as the Circular Economy Emerging Innovator by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. We’re flattered, but there is still work for us to do.
Are there any new offerings, new products available?
Through our development and partnerships, the company plans to use our ingredients in prepared foods, salty snacks, cookies and crackers, cereal and granola, desserts and yogurt. We are also thinking about healthy fast food, too.