Pea protein ‘milk’: Start-up taps ‘hottest commodity’ for sugar-free dairy alternative

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

©GettyImages/Cucu Remus
©GettyImages/Cucu Remus

Related tags Pea protein Dairy alternatives

British start-up Devon Garden Foods is preparing to launch its first dairy alternative made from yellow spit peas. “Our goal was to be significantly better than plant-based competitors,” CEO Cesar Torres tells FoodNavigator.

Devon Garden expects its first plant-based milk alternative to hit UK shelves this summer. Described as a ‘very rich, creamy, and highly nutritious’ alternative to dairy, the Plant-Powered Drink is made from one of the trendiest ingredients in the plant-based space: yellow split peas.

Commonly used as an alternative to soy, and championed by Beyond Meat’s Beyond Burger, yellow split pea is the ‘hottest commodity’, Devon Garden Founder and CEO Cesar Torres told FoodNavigator.

Yellow split peas for sustainability

Having returned to university to complete a sustainability and business ethics-focused MBA at the Exeter Business School, Torres – an engineer by trade – decided he wanted to make a positive environmental impact.

For Venezuelan-born Torres, the meat and dairy industry is having a ‘horrible’ impact on the environment and animal welfare. The UK dairy industry alone is responsible for 95,000 male calf deaths per year, he told us. “And that figure is obviously significantly higher worldwide.”

Dairy milk is no longer a staple in Torres’ life, having turned vegan about six years ago. His goal, therefore, was to develop a product with the equivalent nutritional profile to milk, yet something he could, from a taste and values perspective, ‘really enjoy’.

After analysing a large database of plants, Torres settled on the yellow split pea. Describing the legume as an ‘amazing crop to work with’, the CEO told us that yellow split peas – and legumes in general – require less water and land than other plant-based proteins.

Further, they are ‘nitrogen fixers’. This means less fertiliser is required in their cultivation – which can occur in various climates.

And finally, Torres wanted Devon Garden to have a social impact. “The UK is an important producer of pulses, and being a British start-up, we want to maximise the value of British agriculture in the future, by incorporating as many of the crops that we grow in this country as possible”.

devon garden peas
Devon Garden CEO Cesar Torres has developed a plant-based milk alternative made from yellow split pea protein

Plant-Powered Drink

The start-up is founded on its proprietary protein extraction methodology developed in conjunction with a UK university. It was during the development of this technology that Torres realised he could develop a dairy alternative with at least the same protein content as dairy milk.

Nutritional values, vitamins & minerals per 100ml

Energy                32kcal

Fat                       1.6g

Carbohydrates  1.1g (of which sugars 0.1g)

Fibre                    1.5g

Protein                3.8g

Salt                      0.15g

Vitamin B12       0.4μg

Potassium          170mg

Calcium              120mg

Devon Garden’s first SKU, due to launch within the next two months, is its natural flavoured Plant-Powered Drink. The goal was to develop a product with more protein and fibre, and ‘significantly less’ sugar than other dairy alternatives. “There are 9g of protein in every 250ml serving,” ​said Torres.

Looking at its nutritional values, as well as vitamins and minerals, Devon Garden’s Plant-Powered Drink contains 32kcal, 1.6g fat, 0.1g sugar, 1.5g fibre and an impressive 3.8g protein (milk contains 3.4g protein per 100ml). The product is also fortified with Vitamin B12, Potassium, and Calcium.

While Devon Garden is currently buying in its pea protein, which is produced in European countries such as France and Spain, its long-term goal is to leverage the technology to create its own protein range. At this time, the start-up aims to act as a functional plant protein supplier within the sector. “We see ourselves as the “Intel” of other products,” ​Torres added.

Taste and functionality

While yellow split pea may be one of the trendiest alternative proteins on the market, it has been held back by taste issues. Pea protein isolate has a bitter aftertaste, which requires manufacturers to mask unwanted flavours with additives.

Alternatively, suppliers are required to develop technologies to remove the astringent notes from the isolate.

Devon Garden achieves its desired taste profile through formulation. Its Plant-Powered Drink’s ingredients list includes primarily water, pea protein, locust bean gum – ‘to give a creamy texture’ – as well as complementary ingredients stevia, chicory root extract, and sunflower oil.

While yellow split pea doesn’t have the natural sweeteners found in, for example, oat and almond, it also doesn’t have the strong ‘beany’ notes associated with soya. By incorporating plant-based ingredients stevia and chicory root extract, Devon Garden says it was able to ‘make sure the taste and aroma was just right’ without the addition of any artificial flavourings.

Devon Garden's first SKU is a natural flavoured Plant-Powered Drink

In terms of versatility, the milk alternative can be drunk straight, mixed in with cereal, and won’t curdle in hot drinks such as coffee and tea. “Its foaming capabilities are good,” ​the CEO continued.

This latter functionality may well be appreciated by the brand’s target market: young, active Millennials (aged 22-35) who are ‘nutritionally engaged’.

Indeed, a growing number – at least one-third – of Millennials in the UK are choosing to replace dairy milk for plant-based alternatives. And Torres believes his product outperforms the competition in terms of nutrition. Almost all dairy alternatives have high levels of salt, sugar, and fat, he elaborated.

The CEO is similarly relying on this demographic to be willing to pay for their health. “A product based on pea protein will undoubtedly be more expensive to produce,” ​he explained. The RRP will sit within the premium band for dairy alternatives, Torres continued, and reflect the value of the protein.

Devon Garden Foods was recently selected to join ProVeg International's business incubator, which will help the start-up focus on raising investment to support product distribution, marketing and scales. The programme will also help advance its work in R&D in protein production technology with emphasis on optimisation and customisation of functional properties.