Trade Talk

March 29, 2022

For the love of lupins: For the love of lupins: The Lupin Co's David Fienberg on the next big plant protein

Madaline Dunn


At a glance


The Lupin Co has been driving forward the movement of lupin beans for human consumption for years. As 'Chief Lupinologist' at the company, can you tell me about that and your passion for lupin beans? How did it all start?

I’m from a family of farmers and grew my first lupin crop way back in 1987. Back then, we had a lot of sheep, and lupins had historically been used for stock feed as they really helped the growth of sheep. It gave them nice wool and improved the fertility of both ewes and rams. That was all that was really known about lupins. Then, through a twist of fate, I became the managing director for a joint venture that involved lupins going into Southeast Asia. It involved a couple of corporate multinationals who had invested in lupins mainly as an aquafeed. Eventually, that ran its course, and I managed to convince the board to convert it away from a stock feed company and into a human food company instead.

We started to sell fairly actively into Southeast Asia, mainly into the tempeh and tofu markets. I did that until 2014 and then went off into a few other different projects. Later, however, an opportunity popped up and, together with my wife and a couple of friends, we decided to get the band back together and in 2016 we started The Lupin Co, focusing on plant-based protein. Six years later, it's growing rhythmically and we're now a vertically integrated company.

We started up because we were able to offer single-origin beans with a high level of provenance and traceability with really strong quality systems. We felt that was a significant advantage over our competitors. Additionally, over the years, I've traveled extensively across the globe and was aware that obesity and diabetes were growing significantly. There's been so much research invested into lupins as human food in Western Australia, so we felt there was an opportunity to develop lupin beans into a product that might mitigate some of the effects of modern-day foods and help improve people's health.


Can you tell me about your product range and how you're raising the profile of lupin beans? I know you've recently expanded into the ready-to-eat category.

When we started, many people knew about lupins as a nice flower that grows in the garden but weren't aware of them being a high-quality, nutritious food. So, the first hurdle we had to cross was addressing questions such as "What is a lupin and what do I do with it?." We decided to start with lupin flakes, which are really versatile. Then, we started to blend the lupin flakes and launched a bunch of premix products, including a protein cookie, a powder and a muesli, and they've been tremendous. We also want to get into the standard staples, too, for example, pasta and snack foods - the things that are a big part of everyone's lives. That said, we don't want to cover our products in sugar, salt, and fat, so they become addictive. There's been too much focus there for too long and we think there's a better way of doing it. We want people to be able to eat our products and know that they're doing themselves some good while making sure that it tastes great. You don't have to eat these foods and think you're doing penance. We want people to enjoy our products, knowing that they're consuming foods that are created in an environmentally sustainable way. It's all about keeping our products clean-label and our processes simple while ensuring that we have an ethical approach to business. 

We're starting up commercial-scale tempeh manufacturing from lupins in our factory, too. I’ve been to see so many tempeh manufacturers in Indonesia to understand how these artisans make fermented foods. They've been doing it for such a long time and only now in Western culture are we really understanding the benefits of precision fermentation. So, we'll definitely be seeing the fermented foods category grow - we're expecting it to grow in excess of 40-45% annually. We're selling that into the domestic market, and through cold-chain logistics into eastern Australia.

We believe that a lot of the ingredients from Australia’s indigenous culture are so powerful. For example, Kakadu plums have huge amounts of vitamin C, more than lemons, and have an amazing flavor - so, rather than use flavors such as salt and vinegar and onion and garlic, which are fairly typical, we want to bring out something new, and different. 


As a company, you grow, store and prepare your own lupins. Can you tell me a bit about the process behind that and the importance of keeping things local?

We've got a couple of farms and we use lupins as a rotational crop every third or fourth year and store them on the farms, with the closest being around 200km north of the Perth metropolitan area. Then, we transport them to our factory, which is about one hour north of Perth city. It's a bespoke factory with a whole bunch of quality certifications, including the Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) certification. We're also kosher, halal, gluten-free, and non-GMO project verified. We've met the quality certifications for a number of countries, including the US's FDA. We take a great deal of pride in our quality systems, which enables us to take our clients through the factory to understand our level of traceability and the agricultural regimes on our farms. This includes conventional farming and, although we use a small amount of weedicide and pesticide, our integrated pest and weed management systems enable us to bring that down to almost nothing. 

Likewise, we have environmentally sustainable quality systems in place and use GPS management to measure everything. This means we can talk to our customers about what fertilizer and chemicals we use, what varieties we have, the day a particular crop was planted, down to the serial number of the engine block of the harvester. We've done that because the conscious consumer thinks a lot about provenance. They want to know where and how their food is grown. 

In the beginning, we struggled to understand what benchmarks we should use, so we settled on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, of which there are 17 and most of them we can measure ourselves against.


Can I get some insight into production numbers and the markets you serve?

In terms of total production, with 40,000 hectares and one in four years of rotation, we produce around 20,000 tons of lupins annually on a one ton per hectare basis. However, this year we had a particularly good harvest and some areas were producing in excess of four tons per hectare. So, we produced a lot of lupins this year, and we've stored a lot of them. 

Without a doubt, our biggest market is the US, followed by Europe. We've got an office in the Hague and the Netherlands, so we're expanding quite dramatically there. We've got a lot of interest from Southeast Asia, too, including Thailand and Singapore. We also sell into the Middle East - the UAE, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia - and we find those areas are the opinion leaders. If you pick any one of the nations we export to, their first question is about the nutritional profile of the lupin.


During the pandemic, you saw a spike in demand for your products. What drove that rise?

As they're nearly 40% dietary fiber, lupins are prebiotics, and their fiber feeds the probiotics, which enables gut bacteria to stabilize. We know a lot of modern food combinations have a huge effect on gut flora but having a healthy gut boosts your immune system. We actually found that the website link people checked most frequently was our recipes section - customers were really keen to find out how to use lupins. 

People know about chickpeas and fava beans but, generally, they've got moderate levels of protein and around ten times the carbohydrates. So, when people stumbled across lupins, especially our Australian sweet lupins, and found they were low in carbohydrates and full of dietary fiber, our sales really did spike. We probably had around a 25-30% growth in demand. It really shot off, and the demand was largely for flour and flake. 

A real surprise for us was that, globally, people were really getting into baking - even countries that did not traditionally have an interest in that area - and lupins became a big part of that. At one point, our distributors really struggled to keep up, and there were issues with logistics, but we bit the bullet and put quite large volumes into warehouses to navigate that. 


Do you think the pandemic has changed consumer diets in Australia?

Absolutely. I think people want to get back to nutritious food so that their immune system can cope with everything that's going on. If you're healthy with a robust immune system, you have a better chance of really accessing the benefits that the vaccine brings us. 


Have you found yourselves affected by the farm labor shortage?

Getting access to backpackers has been a real struggle, however, because of the labor shortage, there has been a big investment in new technology, for example, bigger harvesters that are automatically controlled. So, there's been a massive shift away from reliance on backpacker labor. It's so easy to train people in this technology now because there's so much automation. It's fair to say that, when the pandemic hit, there was a bit of a panic around how we would deal with it but people stepped up. There was a huge call around Australia for people that could work on the operations and learn something, make new friends, and earn good money. Ultimately, we were able to get by. Now, we've got better control systems and better ways of packing. 

Part of our success has also come from developing great partnerships, for example, with people using private labels who don't want to use our packaging. They'll take a 1,000 kilo tote bag or container load and then put it into their own packaging, which has taken the pressure off us, and allowed us to really build our volume in a more economical way for our new customers. About 35-40% of our total production goes to private label and food manufacturers while 15-20% goes into retail and the rest of it goes into food service.


Canada recently launched a new initiative to grow more lupins. What are your thoughts on this - do you view it as friendly competition?

I believe anyone who works with lupins as human food is doing an amazing job. We've got great friends in Canada and we're very close to pretty much everyone around the world doing work with lupins. We collaborate with a lot of companies really closely. 

There are four major species of lupins or, what we would call, 'new world lupins,' and most of the lupins grown in Canada are different from Western Australian lupins. Lupinus angustifolius was brought to Western Australia in the early sixties, primarily to fix a problem my grandfather created when he cut down lots of trees (before he passed away, we'd already planted tens of thousands of trees to replace them). We'd get these onshore high-velocity winds that used to blow a lot of topsoil away, so it fixed an issue with soil, and it created a lot of organic nitrogen to grow the wheat crop. So, now it's all about finding a way to take advantage of all of the conventional breeding that’s been going on since the sixties based entirely around lupinus angustifolius.

It's not about lupinus luteus, lupinus mutabilis or lupinus albus. Those species are really high in bitterness, which is caused by a natural anti-feeding compound, but we've developed a range of varieties that are really low in that bitter compound, which has really given us a unique advantage.

I'm aware of what's happening in South America, with mutabilis, and in Canada, with what is predominantly lupinus albus and a little angustifolius. Europe also does a little of angustifolius, a lot of albus, and some luteus. 

The world is a big place, and plant-based protein will eventually look to lupins, and when that happens, there will be more demand than supply. At the moment, we're playing a bit of catch-up with the likes of soya but we love competition and we love creating innovative food products and are excited about bringing environmentally sustainable foods to the global table.