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Benson Hill: Leading the Pace of Innovation

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Benson Hill is a food technology company on a mission to modernize and improve the current food system. Founded in 2012 by former CEO Matt Crisp and the late Todd Mockler, Ph.D., the company has developed a proprietary technology platform called CropOS®, which aggregates data on the genetic information of plants, the formulation needs of customers, and field data from farmers to develop food and feed ingredients that are better from the very beginning. It’s an audacious move but one that stands to contribute positively in a competitive sector.

The driving motivation behind Benson Hill is to build a healthier and happier world by unlocking nature’s genetic diversity within plants. . In essence, the company strives to work symbiotically with the building blocks that nature has provided, and its own technological advancements. By providing more thoughtfully designed ingredients–such as plant-based proteins that deliver tailored consumer benefits–Benson Hill can create “novel sustainable savings” and, ultimately, deliver more nutritional value from seed to plate.

“Our food system produces a handful of crops extremely well, yielding millions of calories. And we have made significant strides toward achieving food security.” Deanie Elsner, interim CEO of Benson Hill told Plant Based World Pulse.

“However, it is time to go beyond what’s currently possible and strive for something better—a future where innovation and nature work in harmony to create nutrition security with healthier, more sustainable food options that help mitigate climate change.”

Addressing the changing alternative protein sector

Assessing the global food system, Benson Hill claims that its focus is transitioning from food security to nutrition security thereby prioritizing nutrient-rich diets over basic caloric needs.

This shift–the company says–is driven by a consumer-led “food is health” movement and further bolstered by organizations including the United Nations, which are currently advocating for healthier and sustainable food choices. However, consumers are not only seeking out more nutritious foods, they are also demanding heightened traceability and transparency throughout the supply chain. This is seemingly being mirrored by food manufacturers which are in turn looking for greater reliability, sourcing transparency, and environmental, social and governance (ESG) quantification from their supply partners.

According to data, Millennials and Gen Z are driving the call for dietary change. It is thought that 90% of US consumers are looking to purchase foods that contain ingredients they recognize or regard as healthier. In addition, 65% want their food to be functional, thereby acknowledging that what they eat has a fuel-function and a direct impact on their personal health.

With such a shift in mind, Benson Hill notes that instead of focusing on producing calories at scale, innovating inside the existing food system is essential. In short, developing healthier, tastier, and more sustainable ingredient options needs to be the first priority.

A pragmatic approach to protein

The plant versus animal protein debate continues to rage on, and while the environmental and health impacts of the latter are frequently used as an argument for plant-based eating, Benson Hill makes it clear that the truth is more complex.

“There was never going to be a single silver bullet to meet the growing demand for protein,” said Renee Beall, Global Director of Product Marketing. “This is supported by the fact that many of the larger meatpackers are branching into plant-based analogue protein products, in addition to traditional protein sources.”

The demand for plant-based protein is growing rapidly and as consumers become more aware of the benefits of reducing their meat consumption, Benson Hill is well-positioned to fill the protein gap with its innovative plant-based ingredients. The company’s CropOS platform allows it to develop customized ingredients that meet the specific needs of its customers, whether they are looking for improved taste, texture, or nutritional value. In practical terms, this could result in more authentic meat mimics–alongside other protein-rich sources–entering the market.

Specifically, Benson Hill is leveraging new developments within the soy sphere, something it claims is seeing perpetual demand for innovation and improvement. While the company states that it firmly believes that there is space for everybody within the burgeoning plant-based protein sector, it still aims to stand apart from competitors through rigorous development of viable new food ingredients.

“Using our CropOS technology platform, we’ve been able to identify ways to reduce bitterness levels in yellow peas while boosting protein and yields,” a company spokesperson confirmed. “Benson Hill is on track to commercialize yellow pea varieties for meat alternative products and pet food ingredients, which we believe are enormous and largely untapped markets where we have an opportunity to replace animal protein with plant protein.”

Sustainability always in mind

Speaking about the company’s proprietary soybean ingredients, Benson Hill notes that they produce less greenhouse gas emissions and use less water during production than accepted benchmark alternatives. Remarkably, data shows that its soy protein products can can require up to 90% less water and up to 88% less CO2e to produce, when compared to South American-sourced soy protein concentrate (SPC), while delivering less processed protein. The question is, how?

Benson Hill’s approach to sustainability is based on two powerful ESG concepts: sustainable design and systems thinking. The company believes that by applying sustainable design principles, it can deliver new livelihood opportunities for farmers, quantifiable ESG metrics for food companies, and more healthy and sustainable food choices for consumers.

In 2022, Benson Hill became one of the first U.S.-based soy ingredient providers to achieve the much-coveted international ProTerra Certification. The standard is predicated on rigorous global standards that set the bar for sustainable agriculture, deforestation-free manufacturing, non-GMO identity preservation, tangible biodiversity efforts, fair labor practices, and more.Benson Hill also joined the ProTerra Network, a group of companies dedicated to sustainable practices and continuous improvement. Concurrrently, the company became a signatory to the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) in support of its customers’ objectives and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

A final word on plant-based eating for human and pet health

On average, Americans spend $1.7 trillion per year on food compared to almost $2 trillion on illnesses related to diet and nutrition including obesity, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes. More than 65% of American adults are either overweight or classified as obese and–according to the CDC–many do not eat enough fresh produce. Benson Hill states that developing better tasting, more nutritious options for both food and animal feed products will play an important role in reversing these trends.

Food is health, and the work Benson Hill undertakes contributes to healthier people, pets, and a more sustainable planet.

Amy Buxton