An ‘underrated superfood’? Meet the Estonian start-up tapping hemp for ‘vegan meat’
Start-up Naturist was founded with a mission to create a meat alternative that is healthy for both people and the planet. To this end, it partnered with a research facility that has spent the past two decades developing a formula for hemp-based vegan meat. The result: Crump.
“Through our unique refining technology using two of nature’s own superfoods, hemp and pea, Crump is the world’s first vegan meat that packs more protein and less fat than meat while maintaining a balanced amino acid profile,” claimed Jürgen Jürgenson, CEO and co-founder of Naturist.
“For every team member at Naturist, Crump is a personal endeavour,” he shared “We have long been searching for a solution that may help humanity change their eating habits while simultaneously improving their health, quality of life and reduce their environmental footprint. Crump finally gives us this incredible opportunity.”
Hemp: A nutritional boost for vegan lifestyles
Crump is a clean label meat analogue product that achieves a balance between health and taste by combining pea and hemp proteins, the CEO continued.
“Crump is made from two ingredients in a simple recipe - 80% of organic hemp hearts and 20% of organic peas. It definitely unlocks clean label formulations as these two ingredients are the only ones there — no undesirable components are found in Crump. The thought of making the product only from hemp was on the table. In the end, we added peas to the final product so that the texture would feel more meat-like. But… nothing beats hemp hearts in terms of nutrients and amino acids,” Jürgenson told FoodNavigator.
Hemp, or industrial hemp, is a strain of the cannabis sativa plant species that is grown specifically for the industrial uses of its derived products. It can be used in a diverse variety of products – from paper to clothes – but in food it has particularly strong potential in plant-based formulations, Naturist believes.
Hemp seeds contain almost as much protein as soybeans. In every 30 grams of seeds there are 9.46 g of protein, data from the USDA reveals. Importantly, hemp seeds are a complete source of protein, meaning that they provide all nine essential amino acids. Hemp is a source of essential fatty acids, such as alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which is an omega 3. It also contains vitamin E, magnesium, phosphorous and potassium.
Hemp’s nutritional composition is made up of 54% plant-based protein, 0% trans fats, 15% fibre and 25% carbohydrates, the start-up detailed.
These nutritional attributes are particularly important because they help plug potential gaps in the vegan diet. Co-founder Taavid Mikomägi revealed many consumers – including himself - have found it difficult to maintain vegan diets, pointing to research that shows 58% of ex-vegans felt forced to quit their plant-based lifestyle due to health issues, such as developing a protein deficiency.
“After years of maintaining a plant-based lifestyle, I, like many other vegans, felt I had to give it up due to the health issues I was suffering, provoked by the lack of protein and consuming unhealthy vegan meat options,” Mikomägi reflected.
Naturist believes that while vegan meat analogues are meant to bridge this nutritional gap, many products on the shelves today are 'unhealthy'. Soy, for instance, is one of the most common plant-based proteins used in meat analogue products. However, when processed soy easily oxidises, releasing polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), the consumption of which has been linked to heart disease and cardiovascular risk.
“We knew we couldn’t stick to conventional ingredients that are currently being used to produce faux meat,” Jürgenson elaborated. “After experimenting with mushrooms, oats and wheat, we realised that none of these ingredients were able to solve the issue as unless they are highly processed, which is another scenario we've been trying to avoid, they don't provide sufficient protein. We then wondered, why don't we experiment with a plant that is usually used to induce appetite? This is when our 'aha moment' occurred.”
Hemp’s sustainability credentials
Given that environmental concerns are seen as a key driver of the plant-based movement, the kicker for hemp is its positive environmental message.
“Since my teenage years, I have always been very involved in tackling the issue of climate change, focusing my attention on sustainable initiatives and lifestyle choices to tread lighter on the planet and reduce my own environmental impact,” noted Mikomägi.
As discourse around the climate crisis continues to escalate, it is also worth noting that hemp crops sequester carbon. Industrial hemp absorbs more CO2 per hectare than any other commercial crop – and even forests. Researchers from the University of Cambridge reveal industrial hemp absorbs between 8 to 15 tonnes of CO2 per hectare of cultivation. For every tonne of hemp grown, 1.63 tonnes of carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere.
Hemp can also be grown without the use of herbicides, pesticides or fungicides. Hemp is in the top five out of 23 crops for biodiversity, performing better than major crops like wheat, maize or rapeseed. And it requires less water to cultivate than conventional crops like soy.
“Hemp has a positive impact on soil health — it’s actually one of a few plants that can enhance soil health and helps it to recover from exploitation. It’s naturally resistant to insect pests and other predators, thus no need to use harmful chemical pesticides. This is good news not only for preserving the soil and nearby waters but also for the wildlife. Bees love hemp and so do we,” added Naturist’s Siim Land, who is also a best-selling author and ‘biohacker’.
Naturist believes that these cleaner and greener credentials will overcome any hesitancy that consumers may have about hemp, which remains a relatively little known food ingredient.
“We are proud of our provocative brand image and not a tiny bit concerned about the image of this controversial plant. We use every possible chance to take people's attention to the cause. In our minds, it’s the planet and people’s health that we are saving. No shame here,” Mikomägi told us.
Next steps: Growing production rapidly
Earlier this month, Crump was launched on the crowdfunding platform IndieGogo. “We launched the crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to grow the production rapidly in order to bring down the costs. This allows us to bring the product to wholesale stores with reasonable prices already this year,” Jürgenson explained.
Sold as dry granules, Crump can be used to replace minced meat. It has a neutral taste which enables it to take on the flavour profile of diverse seasonings and spices, making it a base for meals like tacos, meat-free balls or lasagne.
The company currently plans to bring the product to market under its own brand. “At this point, we are focusing on distributing the product under our own brand so we can manage the holistic picture of the messaging and quality,” Jürgenson detailed.