The Israeli start-up was co-founded by Esti Brantz, its COO, and Meydan Levy, product manager, who were studying art and design when they learnt that, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), around one-third of the food produced globally is either lost or wasted every year.
Shocked by this figure, the pair decided to try to find some solutions to the problem of so-called ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetables: produce that is rejected for aesthetic reasons but is perfectly safe and nutritious.
Although neither Brantz nor Levy had any experience in food engineering or food science, they discovered that by dehydrating finely sliced vegetables at low temperatures, they could create flexible sheets that were similar to other textile materials they had worked with at art school.
Using these dry vegetable sheets, they created light-weight food pods that can be rehydrated to create a wholesome nutritious meal in minutes. The low-temperature drying process preserves the nutrients and one capsule contains between 30 to 40% vegetables, equivalent to around two cups.
Brantz told Fi Global Insights:
“… it’s a big shame that those vegetables are [considered] ugly because they are beautiful inside, literally. When you cut them, you can’t see the ugly outside. They are nutritious, taste good, and aren’t rotten.”
“With vegetables, it’s something we all […] find hard to buy, wash, peel, cut, and cook. It’s a long way until you’ve got it on your plate but this kind of capsule contains whole zucchini and pieces of pumpkin, for instance. It’s basically a fast food but in a different way because it’s green, sustainable, and also full of vegetables.”
Five flavours and countless possibilities
The early-stage B2C start-up, has five clean label and preservative-free capsules in its portfolio: bulgur wheat with lime and lentils; Arabic-style rice with root vegetables; yellow lentil pasta with a mushroom and tomato sauce; Asian-style vegetables with cabbage, carrots and mushrooms; and salad-style quinoa with leafy green herbs.
According to Brantz, the texture of each prepared capsule varies depending on the ingredients. The zucchini & pumpkin capsule has a soft, stewed consistency although almonds and edamame add a crunchy texture while the Asian-style capsule contains lots of cabbage and carrots that retain their crunchiness even after cooking.
It currently has a small pilot production at its R&D lab where it produces a few dozen capsules a day. The products have not been commercially launched yet but Anina is in negotiations with potential partners to scale up, and Brantz believes they will begin building the production facilities in 2022.
Anina has written a provisional patent that describes its concept and manufacturing process and has already received a 2.5-million-shekel investment (around €646,000) from the Kitchen FoodTech Hub, run by food company Strauss Group and The Israeli Innovation Authority, which it channelled into R&D.
Anina recently created a fruit and granola capsule with nuts and seeds that can be eaten alone or with yoghurt, and is already exploring additional applications for the laminates.
“Right now, we are making the capsules but later we could use the flat [laminates] as lasagne sheets or for baking. We can make all kinds of products that contain dough – ravioli etc. – and replace it with these papers. I think the platform is even more innovative than just these capsules. I love the capsules but it’s just the beginning.”
Targeting the premium ready meal space
Anina initially considered targeting the capsule to hikers, campers and even the military but, in order to best leverage the pods’ design and aesthetics, it has identified the whole food, premium ready meal market as having greater potential. Its name is also intended to appeal to its target consumer: in Hebrew, anina means someone with good taste who enjoys gourmet food, Brantz said.
The art student-turned-entrepreneur believes its products stand out dramatically from current packaged, ready meal offerings – even premium ones.
“First of all, the percentage of vegetables is huge – 40%. I have never seen a product that offers that amount of vegetable. Also, [our products] are green, sustainable, natural, and beautiful. When you go out to the supermarket, the first thing that makes you take something off the shelf is the packaging: the beautiful picture that looks appetizing etc. Our products are visually pleasing already so you don’t need these promises of what it will look like.”
“It also connects to the food eating experience. When you look at [the capsule] you have a moment where you are just looking at the details. It connects you to the food, to what you are going to eat, to the wonder of nature.”
“Almost all the ingredients, except for the spices, you can recognize when they are cooked and when you eat it, you can see the ingredients: the slice of zucchini are not cut into small, tiny, invisible pieces. That is also very important, I’m frightened to think about diets that contains powders,” Brantz said. “If you drink it, you will get everything you need for your body but it’s not the real thing.”
The capsules will initially be relatively expensive with an estimated price between five and seven dollars each but Anina is confident this will come down as it scales up operations.
Upcycling ‘ugly’ food
The start-up, which is a member of the Upcycled Food Association, does not foresee any particular supply chain issues in sourcing its ugly vegetables. There is “more than enough” produce being rejected for aesthetic reasons in Israel, Brantz said, and Anina’s dehydration process results in compact, light-weight and shelf-stable laminates that it can make during the peak harvest season when the vegetables are in abundance, and then store for up to two years.
Brantz said that working with ‘ugly’ vegetables as opposed to standard produce does not pose any additional challenges.
“Every vegetable has its own problem, most of them don’t have problems [related to] food safety or sterilization. For example, what makes a sweet potato an ugly vegetable can be just the fact that the machine that takes out the sweet potato from the soil sometimes scratches the peel so it becomes ugly. But it doesn’t matter because on the inside it’s the same, and we peel it anyway.”
Image credit: Anina Culinary Art