Chirag Sabunani of Supplant Foods is deploying material science expertise to create unique plant ingredients, and taking a deeper look at food formulation with novel products like chickpea flour, and understanding how texture plays a key role in making meat ‘meaty’. Supplant’s mission is to supply these ingredients to plant-based companies across the world, and help them improve quality while lowering costs. The founder’s long term goal? To become a springboard for plant-based eggs, dairy, and meat in India.
By: Good Food Institute India Corporate Engagement Specialist Dhruvi Narsaria
Supplant Foods is an India-based company with a focus on developing and producing vegan ingredients for the plant-based sector, starting with flavorless functional protein from chickpea flour with diverse food applications. Their work is emblematic of what India can bring to the table in the global plant-based landscape, by leveraging our unique agricultural biodiversity to advance the industry and benefit farmers along the way.
Founder Chirag Sabunani’s passion to feed the world in a better way led to the launch of the firm, which also supplies a range of hydrocolloids – texture-based ingredients that improve the feel and consistency of plant-based meat products.
Chirag started his food career with ‘Only Great Foods’, a research and manufacturing firm that develops ingredients for gluten-free bakery for its primary customers in the US and Canada. The company was featured as a part of the Innovator’s Lightning Showcase during the Future of Protein Summit 2019, organised by the Good Food Institute and partners.
In this interview with GFI India Corporate Engagement Specialist Dhruvi Narsaria, Chirag shares his vision for adding value to the plant-based protein sector in India using indigenous multi-functional ingredients like the humble chickpea or hydrocolloids like psyllium.
GFII: Work in the plant-based space gives us all an opportunity to build a new food system. I am still intrigued to know why you chose to work in the field with a prior background in material science, and then in finance. Where does food fit into all of this in the larger scheme of things?
CS: When I was studying material science, the one class which interested me the most was a class on material designs. Our research project for the class was essentially designing steel for landing gears which have very rigorous requirements, and some of the topics we discussed in class were ice cream, and the texture and why it starts becoming icy or hard when you keep it for too long. And this stayed with me. I kept thinking about “How can we make food better, tastier, healthier?” Combined with this, I had my own spiritual awakening, during which I realised that the impact I’d love to leave on this planet is the idea that we can evolve as a race of beings towards eating better without slaughter. We can get delicious, nutritious, and cost-effective protein without slaughter. The combination of the two things then culminated into my business, where I realised that I’ve been fortunate to develop a scientific background in an area which allows us to fundamentally evolve and work on the basic materials that are needed in order to make this change happen through ingredients.
GFII: Material science, and food production definitely have one thing in common – iteration. Do you think that iteration in food product development is an important aspect in creating the best possible end-outcomes?
CS: Absolutely, as the fundamental skill that’s required is your design philosophy – it’s about essentially coming up with a very creative process of the outset and then narrowing it down to a series of experiments to try and figure out what is going on towards your goal. A lot of it is about ‘fail fast and fail often but learn from your iterations’. For example, when we developed the chickpea flour for Supplant, there were so many different possibilities out there in terms of how we could tune the performance of the ingredient for different functionalities and end results. And this is where in the design process itself its good to know what your customer is looking for and then bring that back into the whole design process and see what you’re capable of doing – and maybe you’ll find out that it’s just not possible, or that you need some other ingredients and that’s when you adjust. The iteration also involves sending samples to our partners in the market and incorporating their feedback into the final product. That customer feedback incorporation is key to the whole process.
GFII: That sounds like really good advice. Tell us more about Supplant’s main offering – chickpea flour.
CS: Let me start at the beginning. The problem with chickpeas has always been that while it’s great in Indian snacks like pakodas and dishes like hummus, and also has high protein, fiber, resistant starch, it has a ‘beany’ flavour that prevents us from using it in things like cookies, pizza, or plant-based cheeses, milk, yogurts, and meat. We looked at the chickpea and asked ourselves how we can elevate it [to] make it more relevant for this particular space. What was really holding it back was that ‘beany’ flavour, so we managed to get that out using a patent-pending technology that we developed for our chickpea flour.
The next thing we realised is that the proteins within chickpea are really functional. The functions for emulsions, foams and gels are very important for the plant-based industry and to achieve it, developers end up adding a lot of ingredients (sometimes very not very healthy ones) to their food products. And we all know that consumers want cleaner labels. So this is where we looked at elevating the function within the chickpea itself without adding many more processed ingredients. When we look at a lot of plant-based cheeses on the market, a lot of it is very starch heavy. Bringing in that protein and fibre through our chickpea flour into plant-based cheese for instance allows us to create a product that the customer can look at and say “Wow. I not only feel satiated, I feel happy with the taste but I also had something that’s nutritious for me.”
Our product can even be used in extrusion contexts. Because we make a chickpea flour, we are giving chickpea in its highest grade form to the formulator and customer as opposed to isolating it and then figuring out what to do with the rest of it. What I would like to add is that chickpea on its own is not going to give you the perfect protein content. It needs to be combined with other ingredients to reach that perfect level. So there’s a company that we’re working with in America that combines it with hemp to make hemp chips based on their brand values. Others might combine it with pea protein and so on. So for us it’s about giving as complete a solution as possible, especially from a taste and function perspective. But we leave it to our clients to decide what to combine it with for their specific need and this is where the collaboration comes in.
GFII: Interesting. Let’s move on to a more controversial question around hydrocolloids, your second offering. There are negative associations about anything processed, do you face this concern while working on additives in the form of hydrocolloids?
CS: This whole idea of hydrocolloids being bad is misinformation. There are some hydrocolloids which are heavily processed and synthetic like xanthan gum, which people look at as bad but hydrocolloids are the jiggle of your gelatin snacks and the whip in your cream. By definition, hydrocolloids are a colloid (particle) mixed in water (hydro). These particles are what provide the right viscosity, texture or structure to many foods you likely consume on a very regular basis.
I think that there’s misinformation around these and many other ingredients and labels. Hydrocolloids can also for instance include natural, soluble functional fibers like psyllium husk – which is nothing but the husk of a particular plant. We’ve been consuming it in the flake form for centuries in ayurveda – it’s isabgol, a digestive supplement. By just grinding it in a specific way, we augment the functionality so that it can be used to make plant-based sausages juicier and less expensive. So is this more processed than the form we’ve been consuming? Yes it is! But is that a bad process? I don’t think so. Also, when we look at processing as an overall term – it’s all about how we are going about improving the characteristics of products. Processing is not a bad thing. It can be, but sometimes it’s needed in order to make a product palatable. Imagine eating a grain of wheat…
GFII: That’s really well put! So, what’s next in your journey in the plant-based space?
CS: We are looking at working with indigenous and novel ingredients and by next year, we should launch our second ingredient. We see a huge space that needs to be catered to and we definitely feel that that’s where we have the biggest strength. So after the chickpea flour there is a next range of ingredients and proteins that provide further isolated functions for plant-based dairy, meat, eggs but do it at a cost profile which really becomes a game changer for the industry.
GFII: Since you’ve done this for a while, and you’ve been able to successfully structure an entity which also supplies internationally, do you have any advice for startups which are just entering the space?
CS: I think the one biggest thing that I would love to share with folks that are maybe new to this is that number one, keep an open mind and number two, be ready and happy to pivot quite a bit in the initial phase. When you get compelling proof – be ready to pivot, be flexible, and open-minded. It takes a while to really get the sense of market dynamics, especially in India. They cannot be derived from reading a report as they can be in the Western market. Using that approach will really help anybody accelerate through the development phase to the point where they really have a great value proposition.
GFII: We just concluded the Smart Protein Summit 2020, which hosted over 2300 registered attendees including academics, entrepreneurs, corporations and government employees. Do you think industry events add value to a new venture and impact its success?
CS: Definitely, we need to ask ourselves as entrepreneurs, how do we help one another because there’s enough space for all of us to thrive right now. We’re not in a space where we need to compete and be super protective around ourselves. So events like the Smart Protein Summit are crucial in helping us get together and see what’s going on in the community, getting to know everyone who’s doing something- it was definitely inspiring to hear what other folks are doing. It’s also just fantastic to get a sense of what’s going on in the industry as a whole, as sometimes when you are driving a young company you end up in silos, especially for us where most of our markets are outside India.
This article is part of an editorial collaboration between Green Queen Media and The Good Food Institute India with a mission to highlight the key innovators driving the alternative protein revolution in India.
Lead image courtesy of .