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Okara: extracting value from soymilk byproducts – Claire Schlemme [Interview]

San Francisco-based company Renewal Mill is on a mission: reducing food waste sustainably while offering new culinary experiences to their customers. Using the nutritional by-products of food manufacturing, they turn leftover produce pulp into ready-to-use flour.

In this interview, CEO Claire Schlemme explains how their new Okara flour, a soybean byproduct, answers the needs of a range of consumers in search of new nutritional, flavourful and sustainable ingredients. A first step in their search for new superfood products!

Can you pitch your innovation to us in three sentences?

“Renewal Mill is a next-generation ingredients company that upcycles the byproducts of food manufacturing into premium ingredients and products. We provide manufacturers with a complete solution that offers financial returns, eliminates disposal headaches and keeps valuable nutrition in the supply chain. Our initial ingredient is okara flour, a delicious superfood harvested from the soybean pulp leftover during soy milk & tofu production which is gluten-free and contains 20g of fiber and 7g of protein per serving.”

What sparked the initial idea behind Renewal Mill?

“Claire Schlemme, CEO of Renewal Mill, first came face-to-face with the issue of food waste when she co-founded Boston’s first organic juice company, Mother Juice. At the end of each day, they were left with a mountain of nutritious produce pulp. Claire knew that throwing away this pulp was a waste of the resources used to grow the fruits and vegetables, but we just didn’t have a solution.”

“Motivated by this problem, she set out to find sustainable food waste solutions. When she learned about okara, the byproduct of soymilk production, that’s when the lightbulb went off: “What if we could use this byproduct to both reduce food waste and provide affordable nutrition?” And, Renewal Mill was born.”

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How do you identify which byproducts could be turned into viable, nutritious ingredients?

“Our technology works best on fibrous byproducts so, at least for now, we are focused on that realm. Once we’ve identified a potential byproduct candidate, we do a nutritional analysis on the pulp to see what kind of valuable nutrients are in there and what the nutritional profile of the product might look like. The next step is really digging into the literature to see what we can find about uses for the ingredient and research that’s been done on its nutritional benefits.”

“We are also lucky in that we get a lot of inbound requests from manufacturers who are eagerly looking for solutions for their byproducts. We work closely with these potential partners to see if we might be able to help them out!”

How do the properties of okara flour compare with other flours (e.g. wheat, almond)? Are there any application challenges?

“Okara flour is an extremely versatile ingredient. It has a very neutral flavor and is light in color allowing it to blend easily into most flour-based products, including pasta, pancake mix, and cookies. Okara flour can be used in gluten-free formulations on its own or in blends with other flours to add a punch of nutrition to a wide array of products.”

“The flour is milled through a very similar process to wheat flour and has a comparable shelf-life to an all-purpose flour. It’s also incredibly nutritious with roughly two-thirds fibre and one-third protein. Compared to white flour, okara flour is very low in net carbs (88g versus 6g per serving) and using it is easy. Substituting 25% of the volume of wheat flour with okara flour in most recipes will create a product with the fiber and protein of a whole wheat but the taste and appearance of a refined white flour. For gluten-free application, okara flour can replace the main alternative flour (like almond or rice) used in the blend but should still be blended with starches and gums to create a full 1:1 replacement.”

“The chefs we work with have also had great success creating entirely new recipes using the okara flour as the main ingredient – from okara dumplings to pulled noodles to okara-stuffed puff pastries.”

Sustainability is a growing trend. Do you see this staying around in the long-term? What is driving it?

“Necessity and consumer demand. In my opinion, these are the two main drivers of the sustainability movement. Looking at the research on climate change and population growth, it’s clear that if we want to protect our environment and feed the world, sustainable solutions are our only options. Additionally, today’s consumer is not the consumer of 20 years ago. Millennial and Generation Z consumers want to know exactly what is in their food but also how it was sourced, how it was prepared, and how it came to market. With innovations bringing more transparency to the food system, consumers are putting their purchasing power behind products that are not only better for them, but better and more sustainable for the planet.”

What’s next for Renewal Mill?

“This year is all about growth for Renewal Mill. We will be growing our team and bringing on some additional okara partner facilities. We are also going to be bringing our second ingredient to market which might be a nutritional flour made from a different alternative milk byproduct stream. We’ll also be continuing to grow our CPG product line, so be on the lookout for okara products in stores near you!”

As a startup, what has been the biggest challenge in entering this market?

“The biggest challenge is probably introducing a new ingredient and building the entire supply chain from the ground up. Although okara is a traditional ingredient in East Asian cuisine, many people in Western countries have never heard of it. Our goal is not only to educate people about the sustainability and environmental impact of our upcycling process, but also to educate them about novel ingredients and ways to incorporate them into their daily food habits and favorite dishes. Producing delicious vegan okara chocolate chip cookies has been one way we’ve found to reduce the barrier of entry and get more people trying okara!”

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