Food waste is a global concern. It is estimated that one-third of all food produced for human consumption is either lost or wasted, accounting for around 8-10% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Upcycling would-be waste generated during food production, otherwise known as side streams, presents an opportunity to reduce the environmental impact of the agri-food system.
Austrian-based Kern Tec is seizing this opportunity with both hands. The start-up is homing in on side streams from the fruit processing sector to create B2B ingredients for the food industry.
Stone fruit potential
Fruit processors working with stone fruit, be it apricots, cherries, or plums, produce a lot of waste.
This is because inside the stones themselves, the seed – otherwise known as the kernel – contains a dangerous chemical known as amygdalin. When amygdalin is digested, the body converts it into the toxic substance cyanide.
With little use for these fruit stones, juice processors and pitting stations either sell them on to biomass companies or pay for them to be removed, explained Kern Tec co-founder Sebastian Jeschko.
“But stone fruit pits have such great potential, due to their nutritional value,” he explained. Depending on the variety of apricot, for example, a kernel can contain as much as 23% protein. They are also high in unsaturated fats and vitamin E.
“Our solution is to make food out of the side stream.”
As currently there is no supply, nor demand, for stone fruit kernels, Kern Tec’s four co-founders have had to start from scratch. The start-up collects the pits from the fruit processors, and using proprietary machine technology, extracts the inner seeds from the pits. “The machines softly take out the seeds without cracking them, separating the hard shells from the inner seeds,” Jeschko explained.
Drawing cyanide from a stone
There is, of course, one major problem: cyanide. In order to use the kernels in the food industry, amygdalin must be removed.
Kern Tec is not the first to tackle this issue. However, previous attempts have involved boiling the kernels, which removes its taste and functionality, the co-founder explained. “We wanted to find a new solution that would allow the quality of the product, the taste, and functionality to stay the same.”
While Jeschko couldn’t reveal specifics about Kern Tec’s yet-to-be patented technology, he did say its cyanide-extraction process is ‘completely new’, and was largely ‘developed from scratch’.
The start-up has analysed the safety and nutritional value of its cyanide-extracted kernels and is assured it is a ‘very healthy product’. “You could say it is a superfood.”
Despite the currently limited use of stone fruit pits and kernels, they are not regarded a novel food.
“We see it as a non-novel food product, because the kernels and pits have been consumed for a long time,” the co-founder explained. That does not mean, however, that the start-up is shying away from safety assessments.
“Even if it’s not a novel food, we want to check out all the anti-nutrients.” Kern Tec is doing so for both the shell and the seed, but without existing methods in place, Jeschko said it is not as easy as ‘sending it to a lab to find out if it’s healthy or not’. “You need to develop analytics on that basically from scratch. And that’s why it takes so long to bring the shells to the consumer….but we are further along with the seeds.”
First product on the market: specialty oil
Kern Tec’s first product on the market is specialty kernel oil made from either apricot, cherry, or plum seeds. The start-up sells some of the oil white label, and also has oil mill customers who press the seeds themselves.
The pressed oil market was the ‘easiest’ to address first up, explained the co-founder. “Cyanides are not soluble in oil, so we didn’t need [to use our amygdalin-removal technology] for the product.”
Jeschko describes the range as ‘very intense’ in flavour. “It has a slight marzipan taste, but if you spice up a sauce with it, it’s like a natural flavour enhancer. It has acidity, it has sweetness, it has a little bit of bitterness – all in this one oil.”
Indeed, the product has won organic product of the year in Austria, as well as securing gold medals in European oil awards. “The feedback is really enormous. So we know from the oils that the taste of the seeds is something that people like.” Kern Tec’s customer base now spreads ‘all over Europe and beyond’, he added.
The start-up is reinvesting revenues from its specialty oil range into research and development, to make alt milk, baking flours, and protein powders.
The most sustainable nut milk on the market?
Given the alt milk boom of recent years, it is unsurprising that Kern Tec is also leveraging its ‘new nuts’ in dairy-free NPD.
While nut milks, whether that be almond, coconut, or hazelnut, are considered less resource intensive than their cow’s milk counterpart, ‘all nuts consume a lot of water’, said Jeschko.
As stone fruit kernels are by-products of the fruit processing industry, a new alt milk made from fruit seeds could well become ‘the most sustainable nut milk on the market’.
“Stone fruit seeds, especially apricot seeds, do unbelievably well in dairy alternatives. It just works perfectly. And that is why we are addressing this market,” we were told.
Unlike the specialty oil arm of the business, cyanide extraction is required for this process. Kern Tec is starting with apricot kernels, but hopes to develop cherry and plum alternatives as well.
“It’s a plug-and-play solution. Our customers won’t need to develop something new. They just need to add water and bottle it. That’s the great thing.”
The start-up is currently in trials with ‘big players’ and hopes the apricot kernel milk alternative will enter the market later this year.
Masking pea and soy isolate off-notes
Kern Tec is also developing naturally gluten-free, high protein baking flours.
Its flours will not be marketed as an alternative to wheat flour. Rather, the start-up sees its offering as ‘something to add to a recipe’. “The functionality allows it to replace at least 10-20% wheat flour. So you don’t need to change your complete recipe, you just exchange a little bit.”
Its benefits lie in its nutritional profile, which is high in protein and minerals, as well as its natural flavours. Expected to be listed back-of-pack as ‘apricot kernel flour’ – or cherry and plum, depending on the variety – the flours have a ‘fabulous taste’, we were told.
Kern Tec expects it will help reduce the need for added aromas in bakery products, due to kernel flour’s ‘intense flavour’.
As a protein powder, Kern Tec says its offerings can help manufacturers mask the off-taste of pea protein or soy protein isolate. “The best think to mask those flavours with is with an additional protein that comes from a sustainable source – and that’s where we are adding value: in taste, functionality, as well as sustainability.”
Kern Tec’s philosophy is ‘zero-waste’. This means the start-up is using every part of the pit, including the shell.
“The shells go into industries like cosmetics, as a peeling,” explained the co-founder. “The shell has a very specific characteristic in terms of hardness, but they are actually very good for the skin and are biodegradable.” Kern Tec is not developing finished products itself in this area, but grinding the shell into a powder to sell to B2B partners in the cosmetics industry.
Kern Tec was recently accepted into the latest ProVeg International accelerator programme. Its inclusion is ‘perfect timing’, explained co-founder Sebastian Jeschko. “We already have a revenue, we have our own production site, we are not the typical start-up [in that sense].
“We are currently scaling up…and have an investment round at the end of Q2. What ProVeg brings us is a lot of expertise in…scaling. Which means finance, marketing, company culture and so on. ProVeg has such a great network of mentors that support us on those matters.”