"We struggle with the idea that healthy food is expensive..Healthy food should be a right for everyone. The way we solved the price issue was with something which, as scientists, was literally right in front of our eyes: to just use waste - because that way we’re solving environmental, sustainability and price issues, so it was a win-win."
Moayad Abushokhedim is the founder of Fooditives, a food ingredients company based in the Netherlands, which in December 2021, released the first plant-based casein to be used in the broader dairy industry. GPC’s Lara Gilmour caught up with him to discuss his company, his motivation and the need for affordability in the plant-based industry.
Tell us a little about your background and how you got started with Fooditives.
I moved to the Netherlands 6 years ago but I was born and raised in Jordan, where I studied Culinary Arts at RACA. I was always a little bit of an awkward person and I always wanted to do something different. So I decided to start with the sugar industry.
What sets us apart as scientists is that we can really understand the composition of food products before we understand them through tasting. So I used reverse engineering, which I was obsessed with at university, and this allowed me to really understand sugar; where the sweetness comes from etc., and to copy that to make a healthier version with zero calories and zero carbs.
And so you did the same thing with animal products?
Exactly. If we want to make a replica of an ingredient, we really have to understand what’s in it. So, we integrated that into our research and it’s really paid off.
How did Fooditive get started?
When I started it, I was completely by myself and it was just an idea. I’m lucky that, from the moment I had the idea until today, Fooditive has gathered over 150 investors, shareholders and team members. Our family has grown quite quickly in 3 years. I think the reason why we are able to grow quickly is because it’s a concept that we all stand for as human beings. We work with an extremely diverse team from different nationalities and cultures and we all stand for cheaper, healthier, more sustainable food with no waste. And that brings us all together.
How do you go about making healthy food affordable and why do you think that’s an important company value?
We struggle with the idea that healthy food is expensive; lots of people struggle to feed their kids a healthy meal and that’s not fair. Healthy food should be a right for everyone. Growing up in an extremely poor country, I missed out on that and I feel a responsibility to change that. We are in a generation with great access to knowledge and AI to help us; we’re advised by governments managing our food safety and regulations, and this all adds up to our confidence as consumers.
The way we solved the price issue was with something which, as scientists, was literally right in front of our eyes: to just use waste - because that way we’re solving environmental, sustainability and price issues, so it was a win-win.
Which type of waste do you use?
For our sweeteners, we use apple and pear waste from juice companies and farmers; ‘ugly’ fruits that are 3rd or 4th-grade quality. We don't mind because we can deal with all kinds of apple and pear waste for the sweeteners. We have also developed a sweetener from banana skins, which we are so proud of because it comes from something you normally throw in the bin and we have made it valuable. We try to use different ingredients. For our vegan casein, it has a different process, of course, but we still believe in the same concept of choosing cheaper materials to make this product and deliver milk worldwide to everybody, especially those who need it for nutrition.
How is the vegan casein made?
It’s made from whole dry green peas and developed using biotech. Biotechnology can be controversial because it’s widely misunderstood so it’s our job as food technicians and journalists to create the right awareness. We’re really proud of what we’re doing because using a raw material that’s as affordable as green peas means we can make a vegan casein that’s not only healthy and plant-based but also affordable.
Our vegan casein is the first of its kind. It contains all types of casein but it is also an improved version because cow casein can lead to upset stomachs or other health issues. We knew this upfront so we were able to mimic the casein in a healthy way.
And what are its uses?
It can go into plant-based cheeses, milks and dairy products to change the properties - it will give them this cheesy texture, especially in mozzarella. With plant-based cheeses, they can melt a little bit because they use starch but it doesn’t melt to the level we’re used to in dairy cheese. Our casein can give it the texture, flavour and creaminess that we want in a plant-based cheese. We’re also focused on helping plant-based meat alternatives because the casein can also provide the texture that is often missing.
Where do you source the peas from?
We’re still working on a small scale with the casein but with our other products, for example, we rely on distribution companies since they deal with grading the fruit and vegetables and have a clean source of waste.
Once we start making the casein on a larger scale, we’ll be able to look at sourcing the peas in more detail. We want to make this product available internationally, not just in the Netherlands and Europe. We are more focused on countries that are less fortunate and have less access to water and cow milk. They have the right climate to grow green peas easily so we can make it available and affordable in those countries. Also, we can adapt our vegan casein to different raw materials based on the country we want to distribute it in. This will make the product accessible to everyone.
The vegan casein will be available for all companies to use in their production. We don’t want to have any limits on it so it will be available worldwide. We want it to be approved by world health organisations as well.
Now we’ve just shown the success and functionality of the casein so we need investors to take it to the next level. We can’t do it alone; we need support!
I understand Fooditives produces pea milks as well?
Yes. We released our first pea milk in July and it was a special moment for us because we wanted to release a product that mimics the taste of milk. We know that the plant-based milk industry is amazing and there’s huge competition right now but a lot of people struggle with the taste; they don’t like the flavour portfolio. So, we thought we could solve that by mimicking the flavour of milk and creating something that people can use in the same way as cow’s milk. It’s made from pea powder, which we source from France, and we have three different flavours: plain, strawberry and chocolate.
And will you be adding the vegan casein to your existing pea milk recipe?
Sadly not because the vegan casein still requires some approvals from the health regulatory bodies in the Netherlands because they require any GMO product to have more clinical trials. They're more expensive but we fully understand; this is the hard way to go and it will take about a year for it to be ready to be sold and consumed. So, that’s our aim for 2022: to work hard, raise funds and get to the level of clinical trials. All our trials are showing that it’s totally safe to consume but it still has to be tested further and further.
That makes sense. Can you tell me about some of your other products?
We also use carrots to make a natural preservative. We use banana skin to provide a thickening agent for soups and dairy alternative products and we have an emulsifier, which is an egg replacement, and a fat replacement made from avocado seeds.
You mentioned sustainability earlier, could you expand on that?
We want to achieve sustainability, not only environmentally but also socially. We always try to level up with our sustainability goals but, on the other hand, we're doing it because we believe in it! When I started Fooditive, the idea of using food waste was unheard of; people thought we were crazy. I think that’s what made us unique because we weren’t following a trend, we created a trend of upcycling food because we thought it was needed. We all need to be part of the change but, at the same time, somebody needs to be a pioneer.
How does it feel to be in a country such as the Netherlands, which is so advanced in terms of food tech veganism, compared to growing up in Jordan? Are people there also on their own path towards sustainability and veganism?
I left Jordan because of this, frankly! Don’t get me wrong, I love my country and it’s amazing. I feel bad because I didn’t stick to my country and try to change it; I feel responsible for that. But, unfortunately, I didn’t get the same opportunities there as I did in the Netherlands, where there’s this pressure to be a pioneer and there’s funding and support from the government and the banks. That’s what helped Fooditive to reach where we are today: this pressure to achieve. When we released our vegan casein, we were already aware of the pressure it would put on us to do even more. Moving to the Netherlands is one of the best things I've done in my life. Being called a Dutch startup is a huge source of pride.
Do you worry there will be a knowledge gap between countries like the Netherlands and Jordan in terms of sustainability and healthy eating?
Yes and no. I think in some ways it’s the responsibility of the company. If you have a great concept, you can launch it in a certain country, get the support and the funds but then move it back to the countries that need it. We have an expansion plan for Jordan by 2023 because that’s our responsibility. There are so many people like us in those countries and so it’s up to us to spread the word. If we make the information and knowledge public, I’m sure it will happen - maybe a bit slower, but it will happen.
This is our future - we are among the people who will make a change in this universe. We have to take responsibility because we don’t want to leave the world the way we got it, we want to make it better. It’s such an emotional thing for me because I know I have a limit but, at the same time, we can do it - we can make a change. The least you can do is start with yourself and then go from there.
What other plans do you have for the future, aside from the ones you have already shared?
We actually have a new product out next year that will change not only the way we taste food but the way we experience it in general; something that comes down to the way we relate to food at the most basic level - and that is salt. All I can say is stay tuned and we promise that we will keep full transparency, not only to the press but to the end consumers. We’re going to tell them how it’s made and we’re not going to hide anything. We want them to teach us how to do it right.
Where do your ideas come from? Are you just looking at the food chain and saying ‘right, we’ll start here..’?
Anything that people are doing, I go in the opposite direction. When I introduced the sweetener, there was no other sweetener startup and people said to me: “Why would you do this? Go into protein!” but I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to do sweeteners. I think it’s just seeing the gap and realising it. I ask myself why nobody else is doing it and sometimes the answer can shock you. Sometimes people don’t want to change the sector and sometimes they want to change it but they don’t know how. If people want to change it and don’t know how, that’s how I choose the projects.