For one Silicon Valley startup, yellow peas are milk's future

Ripple extracts protein from yellow peas to make its plant-based milk which offers a surprisingly clean taste. PHOTO: ST FILE

New York (Bloomberg) - In recent years, alternative sources of milk have begun to disrupt the dairy industry, from soy to almond to rice. The latest contender for space in your refrigerator is milk made from yellow peas.

In 2015, sales of dairy milk decreased by 7 percent (US$17.8 billion or S$24 billion), and they are projected to fall an additional 11 percent through 2020, according to market intelligence agency Mintel. Meanwhile, Bloomberg has reported that almond milk sales rose 250 percent from 2011 to 2015.

But there are barriers to mainstream adoption: Soy milk can taste chalky, and soy beans are notorious for being genetically modified. Almond milk, despite its high-protein reputation, has only one-eighth the protein of dairy milk and requires huge amounts of water to produce. Rice milk has a pleasant enough flavour but is also low in protein.

Enter Ripple, a new line of dairy products powered by US$44 million from Google and Silicon Valley venture capitalists. Since it launched in April 2016, the company has sold 2.5 million bottles of product and generated US$20 million in revenue, using milk made from simple yellow peas. The vegetable is inexpensive to grow and also produces a surprisingly clean taste.

The duo behind this plant-based milk is a formidable team. Mr Adam Lowry is a co-founder of eco-minded cleaning line Method, which generated revenue of more than US$100 million when he sold it to Ecover, a Belgian company, in 2012. Mr Neil Renninger helped build Amyris Biotechnologies, which uses technology to create renewable fuels, which started with a grant from the Gates Foundation; he has also been an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Menlo Park VC firm, Khosla Ventures.

In 2014, the two friends saw an opportunity to change the dairy industry. "The food system represents 20 percent of the world's carbon emissions, and dairy is one-quarter of that," said Mr Renninger via telephone. "The impact is massive. More than beef, more than chicken, dairy is actually the largest contributor to emissions by volume. That challenge scratched my sustainability itch."

Mr Lowry and Mr Renninger began searching for a product that would simultaneously taste better and be more eco-friendly than existing alternate milks. They maintain that food businesses don't spend a lot of money on research and developmemt to create better products. "Their idea of innovation is a brand extension," said Mr Renninger. "We saw huge potential for impact-a lot of white space in the world of food innovation through technology."

"What we did is use technology to create really good food," reported Mr Lowry. "The world has recognised that we need to go more plant-based. You see it in the burger world with products like the (meatless) Impossible Burger. But most plant food sucks, particularly in the alternate dairy space. It's low in protein, thin, and chalky."

Using Mr Renninger's technology, they began to experiment extracting protein from from different plants that had a notable amount of the biomolecules. "You name it, we screened it," said Mr Renninger. Most of them tasted terrible.

Then the pair tried yellow peas, which are inexpensive to grow and don't yield a strongly flavored product. The result was a drink that has a hint of concentrated powdered milk taste and a smooth, creamy texture. "It's not that we have the only pea milk on the market; what makes us unique is that, thanks to technology, we have the purest plant protein in the world," said Mr Renninger.

The milk made from yellow peas also delivers the same amount of protein as those from cows (8gm per serving, comparable to soy milk but much higher than almond milk). But what really sets Ripple apart from other alternative milks is its eco footprint.

According to their research, each 1.4-litre bottle of Ripple (made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled material) represents a savings of 1.6kg of carbon dioxide emissions and 3,501.5 litres of water, versus dairy milk. The 2.5 million bottles Ripple has sold adds up to nearly 3.2 million fewer kg of CO2 emissions - the equivalent of taking more than 600 cars off the road for a year. And getting the same amount of protein from almond milk would require 249.8 billion litres of additional water.

Currently, five kinds of Ripple milk are on sale at such places as Whole Foods and Target Corp. stores: Original unsweetened milk is the best seller, along with flavours like chocolate milk and vanilla milk, plus half-and-half and kids' packs. Meanwhile, Ripple is expanding its product base: This winter, the brand will enter the burgeoning yogurt business with a plant-based, Greek style yogurt.

The flavours will range from vanilla to blueberry and strawberry - "plus some dessert-oriented flavours", added Mr Lowry. "We're playing with flavours like maple and key lime."

Yogurt is a logical step for Ripple, putting it solidly in the snack category. "Only 14 percent of people who buy non-dairy milk are lactose intolerant. Most consumers do it to be greener. That trend is only going to get bigger," said Mr Renninger.

And though the toughest challenge is still getting people to try it, the cost of yellow-pea milk may currently be too much for cost-conscious consumers to ignore. (At US$5.99, a quart or 0.9 litre is about US$1 more expensive than soy milk and about 30 percent pricier than organic dairy milk).

But Mr Renninger is looking into the future. "In a couple years, we'll be able to make liquid milk for less than the cost of milk," he said.

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