Fermentation start-up reinvents street food for UK market
Better Nature is “all about tempeh”, said co-founder Elin Roberts, referring to the traditional, fermented soy product hailing from Indonesia.
Tempeh has a mild and nutty flavour. Despite being a common street food in Indonesia, and disregarded by some locals as ‘peasant food’, soybeans serve as a key source of protein – and tempeh, a source of complete protein.
“Tempeh is able to unlock so many nutrients,” Roberts explained. “It’s not seen as anything special…typically you only buy it on the side of the road.” Yet, the fermentation process boosts the beans’ amino acid profile, suggesting that tempeh could play a vital role in combatting malnutrition in rural Indonesian communities.
As a result, Better Nature’s approach to tempeh is two-fold: the start-ups wants to democratise tempeh in the Western world, and eradicate protein-energy malnutrition in Indonesia.
Nutrient-rich tempeh for the Western world
Four co-founders launched Better Nature in 2018. With a food science team in Indonesia, and a research hub in northern England, the start-up is currently developing “lots of exciting new products” with tempeh.
Starting with marinated varieties, the Nottingham site is now trialling more complex finished products, including a burger concept. “It’s about innovation in tempeh,” said Roberts. “We think tempeh is great by itself, but…because being a biological process – it is literally a fermented food – means you can play around with it in a completely natural way.”
By ‘playing around’, the co-founder is referring to manipulating the fermentation process. Tempeh is typically made by mixing soybeans with a fungal starter culture. The nutrient profile of the end product relies heavily on the particular strain of starter culture, Roberts explained.
“While with most things, if you wanted additional vitamin B12 you’d have to literally add in the B12, what is amazing about tempeh is that by selecting specific starter cultures you can modify its nutrient profile.”
Better Nature’s food science team in Indonesia has already developed a tempeh process that is higher in vitamin B12 than conventional tempeh. “Very soon we will be working on creating tempeh that is higher in calcium and higher in iron. They are very confident they can do it,” she continued.
The fermentation process can be applied to almost any nut, seed, grain, or legume, so while Better Nature is first looking to launch original tempeh, tempeh mince and tempeh bacon products, the start-up hopes to expand this range quickly.
“With have played around with quinoa to chia to chickpea, and know it works. It’s more about introducing it to market – if people don’t know must about tempeh, releasing something like chia tempeh is probably a bit premature,” she told us. “That is definitely something that we will be releasing as soon as the market is ready for it.”
The start-up is also experimenting with lupin beans, which were popular with the Romans and are now found along the Mediterranean, primarily in Spain, Portugal and Greece. Another lupin variety was also eaten by Peruvians and Native Americans.
“They are nutritious, high in protein, and work well with tempeh – so that could also be one of our first products,” said Roberts. Lupin beans could also appeal to those with soy intolerances or allergies.
Better Nature is also hoping to leverage its expertise in tempeh to reduce protein-malnutrition in low-income areas of Indonesia.
“Protein-energy malnutrition affects people all over the world, [including] in rural Indonesia. A lot of these people have access to crops and food, but it’s about the quality of that food,” Roberts told this publication.
The start-up has therefore linked up with the charity Indonesian Tempe Movement – which was started by one of the co-founders and his family – to help promote tempeh as a viable, nutritious food source, and to provide it to those in need.
Ten percent of Better Nature’s profits will help to fund the charity’s work. The start-up has also developed a prototype tempeh maker, called TempEasy, that it in the long term it hopes to provide to local communities.
The same co-founder since helped create the American Tempe Movement with some advocates of tempeh in the US, including the founder of turkey replacement brand Tofurky, Seth Tibbott.
Earlier this month it was announced that Better Nature – along with 53 other agrifood start-ups – had been selected into EIT Food’s accelerator hub programme. Better Nature will receive four-months of mentorship, programming and resources in Switzerland.
“At EIT Food, we strongly believe that the collaboration between start-ups and industry players is very important in order to develop innovation faster, and to make sure we can address the big challenges that we have in the food space,” Benoit Buntinx, who heads up business creation at EIT Food, told FoodNavigator.
The accelerator programme allows start-ups to benefit from infrastructure support, prototyping facilities, and helps entrepreneurs validate their business model, he added.