Through its proprietary technology, the company transforms organic, high-fiber food by-product streams into nutritious raw ingredients.
The recent EAT-Lancet review of our global food system has been widely welcomed because of its efforts to connect, for the first time, scientific targets for both healthy diets and sustainable food production around the world. By aligning itself with both the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement, it helpfully outlines how we might deliver a sustainable and healthy food system for 10 billion people, all within our planetary boundaries, by the middle of the century.
Of course, it won’t be easy. Meeting such goals will require unprecedented collaboration and true transformation of a system that has served us well for the last hundred years, but is ill-equipped to serve us in the future. While global production of calories has kept pace with population growth, around 820 million people still lack enough food. And many more of us are forced to eat too much food of lower quality.
Meanwhile, our global agricultural sector occupies 40 percent of land, and the food system is responsible for up to 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and 70 percent of freshwater withdrawals.
It is a conundrum — producing better-quality food with less impact on the environment — that Claire Schlemme and Sumit Kadakia, co-founders of San Francisco Bay Area-based Renewal Mill, are set on solving.
The company’s mission is two-fold: to extract value out of food system by-products — following in the footsteps of startups such as Canvas, Mayahuel, Planetarians and Regrained — and to address the lack of affordable nutrition in food deserts. Through its proprietary technology, it transforms organic, high-fiber food by-product streams into nutritious raw ingredients.
“On a macro level, we were troubled by the waste of by-products in a food system where 40 million Americans are food insecure and 97 percent of Americans are fiber deficient,” Schlemme told Sustainable Brands in a recent interview.
By following the current, linear supply chain models of today’s food system, consumer packaged goods companies are missing out on affordable and sustainable sources of tasty nutrition that can be used to create whole new classes of products.
“Serving mass-market customers with organic, natural and healthier-for-you products represents a $60 billion opportunity,” Schlemme asserts.
So, the company set about using an automated dryer, with combined ceramic and steam heating elements, to dehydrate wet and heavy by-product materials within an existing factory. Right now, that factory is owned by plant-based foods producer Hodo Foods in nearby Oakland, which is piloting the technology. There, Schlemme and her team are producing okara flour, a superfood flour made from the by-product of soy milk manufacturing. It is organic, non-GMO, low-carb and a natural replacement for refined, all-purpose flour.
Hodo Foods produces more than 4 million pounds of okara a year in a food-safe environment. However, due to the energy intensity required to stabilize okara and the current lack of an established market at medium-scale production, Hodo has not had an avenue to extract value from the okara. Instead, the company has had to rely on free, though often inconsistent and inefficient, pickups from independent farmers to handle this waste stream.
“Almost all other food processors experience these same problems. We founded Renewal Mill to solve this,” Schlemme says.
The first ingredient the team has produced is Organic Okara Flour. According to Schlemme, it has six times the fiber and a “better taste than current alternative flours,” at 20 percent of the price.
“We’ve partnered with some of the best culinary minds in the US to help develop accessible, okara-based products,” she says. “We recognized the need to focus on creating a superior product, ensuring we received high visibility placement within convenience stores and be able to produce our product at a price point on-par with national brands.”
The first product is a range of single-serve cookies that “taste better than existing Grandma’s or Famous Amos options” but are plant-based, clean label and a good source of fiber. The business will soon be distributing these to stores across the Southeastern US — a deal that will have the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions reduction impact of planting 85 trees a week, according to the company.
Schlemme says Renewal Mill has barely scratched the surface on its initial market of finding value in by-products captured from the $1.7 billion non-dairy US milk market.
“Our technology is low cost and can be replicated quickly to facilities across the country,” she says. “We already have 60 percent of okara from all whole soy products produced in the US in our future installation pipeline.”
Next up, Schlemme says the company will explore how pea okara might be used to create a low glycemic index version of Gatorade.
“Our long-term vision is to create a new circular economy of food that both reduces wastes and delivers affordable nutrition and taste to those who need it most,” she adds. “Our role in this new circular economy will be as a combined consumer packaged goods and business-to-business distributed ingredients producer, where by-products from one production facility are processed to precisely meet the needs of another facility.”