“This is our cow,” says Adam Lowry, CEO of Ripple, a Silicon Valley startup known for making milk from peas. He’s pointing at a small tabletop homogenizer, a device that blends fat, sugar, and protein to test milk recipes in the company’s small lab in Emeryville, California. The company’s goal: to make plant-based dairy products that anyone, including non-vegans, will actually want to eat and drink.
At the base of the products is a proprietary ingredient the company calls Ripptein, made in a patent-pending process that the company says strips out the flavor of plant material and leaves almost purely protein, so its milk product doesn’t taste like peas. And after a successful launch in 2015, the company is now poised to expand its pea-based dairy offerings: half-and-half and Greek yogurt that the company says will have the same protein content as dairy products (and, ideally, the same taste), with a fraction of the footprint.
“From a biochemical standpoint, milk is protein, and fat, and sugar,” says Neil Renninger, cofounder and co-CEO at Ripple. “There are plenty of plant sugars you can use, and plenty of plant fats. There are also plenty of plant proteins you can use, but the problem is that they all taste like the plant they derive from. We had to figure out how to make a plant protein that didn’t taste like a plant protein.”
Lowry hands me a spoonful of pea isolate, a yellowish powder that is currently used in some other products, such as almond milk, to add protein (a serving of typical almond milk has only a gram of protein, versus eight grams in a serving of dairy milk). It tastes very much like peas. The impure isolate is the reason, he says–as he hands me a sample of a competitor’s almond milk made with extra pea protein–that most nondairy milk has a slightly off flavor and texture. Compounds like isoflavones and phenolics are among the usual culprits. “It’s the stuff that adds complexity and texture to taste of red wines and whiskey,” says Renninger. “Not surprisingly, not so good in milk.” I then taste a sample of Ripptein; it isn’t flavorless, but close. Pure protein molecules have no flavor.
Renninger, who was previously the cofounder and chief technology officer of Amyris Biotechnologies, began product development in his kitchen–using his children as test subjects–in the fall of 2014. “I quickly realized that we could build up something that had the same nutrition and creaminess as milk from plant-based sources,” he says. The company launched in December 2014, moving into a lab and bringing in experts who began developing the company’s method to separate flavor molecules from protein. By the following spring, the team had developed its process, which uses a combination of heat, pressure, temperature, and other factors to purify pea protein. By December 2015 they had scaled up to commercialize, and by May 2016 their line of pea-based milk was on shelves at Whole Foods. A little over a year later, their sales at Whole Foods have grown 300%. Monthly sales across all outlets are now in the seven digits.
Part of that growth is due to the strength of plant-based milk products in general. While dairy milk sales are dropping–one report suggests that total sales will fall 11% between 2015 and 2020–nondairy milk is predicted to grow from a $2 billion market in the U.S. now to nearly $3 billion in 2020.
In the past, consumers often tended to choose nondairy milks because regular milk wasn’t an option for them–they were vegan, or allergic to dairy. But the leading reasons now are nutrition and taste concerns; sustainability is also a driver. Milk has a large carbon footprint because of the production of grain for cows, methane from cow burps and manure, and the energy used to produce and distribute the final product. In a life-cycle analysis, Ripple calculated that it produces roughly a third of the emissions of dairy for a glass of milk because the main ingredient, peas, takes far fewer resources to produce–and peas don’t burp. Almond and soy milk have similarly low carbon footprints (though because almond milk has far less protein, if you compare the carbon footprint on the basis of protein, its footprint is significantly worse than dairy). Almond milk also has a much larger water footprint.
Plant-based milk can also have health benefits compared to dairy milk, as it has less sugar and fat. In the case of soy and pea milk, it still offers a similar amount of protein.
If consumers are choosing nondairy milk just to be more responsible (rather than because they can’t digest lactic acid, for example), Ripple believes that taste is critical. “Those motivations are more wants and desires, so if those aren’t met in the products they’re using, they’ll just switch back to milk,” says Lowry.
Lowry previously cofounded Method, the cleaning product company, which became the largest green cleaning company in the world. He wants to take a similar approach with Ripple. “It brought green cleaning products to the mainstream, rather than pulled mainstream to green,” he says. “It was that bridge. It was the brand that you tried when you said, ‘I want to try green cleaning products’ but didn’t want to buy that crunchy brown paper bag stuff. That’s still happening. [With nondairy milk], those trends are already happening to a greater degree than they were in the green cleaning segment, and the products are even worse relative to the conventional.”
Ripple’s pea milk doesn’t taste exactly like milk. But it has a similar creaminess, as opposed to the watery texture of some alternatives, and it doesn’t have the odd aftertaste of those alternatives. Using its tasteless protein base, the startup is beginning to launch other products that it believes can tempt consumers away from dairy. A pea-based half-and-half, which blends into coffee like the real thing (without the calories), and can be used in cooking, will launch in July. At the lab, I tasted the half-and-half along with prototypes of pea-based Greek yogurt that may launch at the end of 2017 or the first quarter of 2018.
Both new products were challenging to produce. “With half-and-half, the challenge was getting something that worked well in coffee, but also would work well in a culinary situation,” says Renninger. For coffee, they needed something that would stay stable–many plant proteins turn solid in coffee–whiten the drink, and taste clean. “It’s a bit of a balance providing that creaminess and a clean taste. Protein is an important part of the creaminess in half-and-half, but if you don’t have clean protein, you can’t get that creaminess without adding off flavors.”
For the yogurt, which is still in development, the team had to figure out how to deal with the fact that fermenting milk is different than fermenting plant “milk.” “Something I always like to do when thinking about fermentations is to ‘think like the bug’—bug being a shorthand for the cultures that do the actual fermentation,” says Renninger. “We’re not the only ones who do this—I find a lot of fermentation professionals think the same way, whether it’s making a pharmaceutical, brewing beer, or making wine. In this case, imagine yourself swimming in a vat of milk and all of the richness that exists there; now compare that to swimming in a vat of plant milk. What’s different? It’s the differences that drive the differences in fermentation, and the fermentation drives the taste and consistency of the product.” While the current prototype doesn’t taste exactly like yogurt, it tastes good; the same could not be said for an almond yogurt that I sampled.
Other products, such as ice cream, will come later. “Anywhere you have a plant-based protein is a space we could potentially play,” says Lowry. “We don’t have any business plans to get into the meat world, but clearly the technology that we have could really apply to the meat substitute world.”
The company is pouring about half of its current revenue into research and development. “I think the traditional food industry, Big Food, is just not set up to take advantage of the opportunity,” says Renninger. “Out here, we think of innovation, and we think of the Facebooks and the Googles and the Genentechs of the world, companies that are spending 10, 15, 20% of revenue on R&D. A typical CPG company spends a percent of revenue on R&D, and most of that R&D is focused on packaging and how I deliver something to you as a consumer rather than the stuff you’re actually eating. It’s a lost opportunity for them, and it’s something that we’re taking advantage of.”
The company’s process could also be used with different ingredients, such as soy; for American consumers, because of allergies and concerns (whether legitimate or not) about plant estrogens, the company is focusing on peas, but if it later expands to the Asian market, soy may be a better option. In the lab, the company is experimenting with other ingredients such as spent brewers grains and other byproducts that could help improve its sustainability footprint even more, and lower cost.
Even using peas, the company believes that it will soon be able to produce its milk for the same cost as a dairy. “The amount of natural resource inputs that go into making ripple are a lot less than dairy, so in theory you should be able to make it for a much lower cost than dairy,” says Lowry. “Now dairy is a massive, massive scale, but we think we’re going to get to that point by the end of next year, where we’ll be able to actually make plant-based milk for less than the cost of cow’s milk. When that happens, for sustainability, health, and from a business standpoint, that is an incredibly large opportunity.”
Correction: This article previous misstated Neil Renninger’s position as the CTO. It’s been corrected to reflect his actual title.