How Leaft Foods turns green plants into a protein nutritionally similar to beef

John Penno and his wife Maury Leyland Penno realized about six years ago that it was time to dedicate their lives to something that’s better for the environment.

It was a major life decision for the pair, who were both executives in New Zealand’s dairy industry. John Penno had co-founded dairy nutritional company Synlait, and Maury Leyland Penno was an executive at Fonterra. They wanted to take their knowledge and passions — as well as their agriculture-focused viewpoint from their home country of New Zealand — into the alternative proteins space. But they weren’t sure just what their venture would be. After all, there were many players in plant-based protein, and it seemed unlikely that they would be able to break into the crowded soy or pea ingredients space.

Then Maury Leland Penno took her husband to a hackathon. They listened to a researcher talk about a project from the 1980s that dealt with leafy greens. And that got them both thinking.

“Leafy crops are very, very productive, these perennial plants,” John Penno said. “You mow them off and they just keep coming back with the light. And the protein production in that leafy cropping system is enormous. It’s a very, very efficient way of harvesting sunlight, water and nutrients and producing protein and carbohydrates and all the other things you want to produce.” 

The substance that makes leafy greens such a life force is a protein known as rubisco. It is required for photosynthesis, and researchers have said it is the most abundant protein in the world. The Pennos started Leaft Foods, a company that extracts rubisco out of leaves and turns it into a green protein gel, which it can process into a tasteless and odorless protein powder. Rubisco, which has a similar amino acid profile to beef, is a powerhouse ingredient that can be added to any food product, and that can supercharge the nutritional value of any plant-based dish, according to the company.

Last month, Leaft closed a $15 million Series A investment round. The round, led by Khosla Ventures, saw participation from NBA star Steven Adams, New Zealand indigenous investor Ngāi Tahu and the Climate Change Impact Fund of New Zealand sovereign health provider ACC. The funds will be used to build Leaft’s R&D, help the company grow, and begin to establish a global value chain starting in the U.S.

From a kitchen experiment to sports nutrition

Rubisco is already in every plant. When consumers eat a salad, they are getting a dose of its high-quality protein. Herbivores, including large ones that need a lot of nutrients like gorillas, get a lot of their protein that way.

Humans do eat some leafy greens, Maury Leland Penno said. But we don’t eat enough to get the concentration of rubisco that could fully meet dietary needs — and the human body isn’t exactly built to digest the large amount of leafy greens to get that much rubisco.

Leaft’s proprietary process takes the rubisco and concentrates it so it can be in the amounts that could meet humans’ protein requirements.

John Penno said that rubisco is unique in several ways. It isn’t like a protein that comes from a legume, including pea or soy, or from a grain, like wheat.

“It’s active. It’s much more like an animal protein in that,” he said. “…It has wonderful properties. In its pure form, it’s tasteless, odorless. And while that sounds boring, for a protein as an ingredient or a drink, it’s marvelous building block for foods. It’s got a great amino acid profile because, again, it’s a functioning live protein. It’s got work to do and it’s working inside.”

Leaft Foods co-founders Maury Leland Penno and John Penno

Courtesy of Leaft Foods

 

Before the company was officially started, Maury Leland Penno did an extensive review of scientific writings about rubisco. She had been able to get a green rubisco gel out of kale leaves in their kitchen. So the next step, John Penno said, was finding people who had the food science knowledge and ability to improve the company’s product.

Today, Leaft still performs that first step: removing the green juice that contains rubisco from the plants it harvests. Then, similar to dairy milk, Leaft takes that juice to a processing plant, Maury Leland Penno said. Some of the processes to extract the rubisco and turn it into what looks like a white powder are actually similar to those used in dairy plants worldwide, she said.

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