Six years ago Maija Itkonen, the CEO and co-founder of Gold&Green Foods and the mastermind behind the revolutionary plant protein Pulled Oats®, wanted to make a lasting impact and change the food culture. Today, Pulled Oats finds its way to the plates of culinarista across the globe. But how are products that shape the normal of food born?
PAID COLLABORATION WITH GOLD&GREEN FOODS.
“In 2014 I bumped into a headline celebrating how “fake meats” finally taste like chicken. That didn’t sound right. I’ve eaten plant-based for most of my life and at the time, I was thinking a lot about climate issues. I had really started to question why not eating meat was called a special diet when the mainstream one was so unsustainable. At that moment, I started to envision the new normal of food: could there be a new coming for plant-based products?
And that’s when I got the idea of a plant protein that would not imitate anything: Pulled Oats®.”
Maija Itkonen is one of the masterminds behind a Finnish food innovation changing the food culture all around the world. This summer at Spark, we’re highlighting products and services that can help individuals take climate action, and Gold&Green’s Pulled Oats® is top of the list. Pulled Oats® is a so-called perfect protein, meaning it contains all the essential amino acids needed for human nutrition. The patented plant-based innovation is made from oats and legumes using a unique mechanical process including mixing, pulling and heating of oat-fibres and legume proteins, developed by Itkonen and her co-founders Reetta Kivelä and Zhong-Qing Jiang.
When Pulled Oats® was released in Finland in 2016 it flew off the shelves and people were sharing tips on social media on where to find it. Now it’s sold in 11 countries and has been followed up by other plant-based products. As one of the first meat replacements to make it big it’s already had a huge influence on how people see plant-based foods.
Six years ago, industrial designer Itkonen was at a crossroads trying to figure out her next step: the corporate world didn’t feel right, and she was looking for something with a long term effect and a possibility to really put herself out there.
“I knew I couldn’t force the solution to come up. I’ve learned to trust my intuition and I’m used to giving my thoughts the time they need to develop. As life goes on, the right context will appear eventually and the idea finds its shape.”
And when that happens, Itkonen goes for it, full speed. Pulled Oats® was no exception and soon the company Gold&Green Foods was founded.
“We recognised the demand for something completely new: a plant protein that wasn’t trying to imitate anything and would have all the good qualities of its ingredients while designed to fit our everyday needs.”
As every entrepreneur with a big idea, in the early days Itkonen and her co-founders were sometimes met with scepticism: people not familiar with plant-based food or the need to change eating habits into a more climate-smart direction were doubtful about their idea. On the other hand, people that were aware of these things kept cheering them on.
Despite the great idea, the team wasn’t able to avoid setbacks completely, but for Itkonen that was only natural:
“Hardships are part of the journey of building a company and your job is to find out if one of them is too big to overcome. There’s no mistake in failing — the mistake is not trying at all. Personally, I believe that the solutions to big problems are born in companies. Since entrepreneurship is something you get better at with practice, I’d hope for more flexible options so that the threshold to give it a go would be lower. If it was easier to combine entrepreneurship with a day job, more people would take the chance and new ideas would see daylight.”
Plant-based proteins like Pulled Oats® hold huge potential both when it comes to mitigating emissions and improving public health. Statistics show that 80% of men and 26% of women in Finland eat more processed and red meat than recommended from a health perspective. At the same time, a shift in diet among high consumers of animal-based foods could roughly halve the per person GHG-emissions from agriculture and land use. This is a big deal since these two sectors contribute to around 20 % of global annual emissions. Even a small shift has a big impact: if all Europeans would add just one meat-free day per week for a year, it has a larger impact than closing down Europe’s largest coal plant for a year: we’d save 45 000 million kg CO2-eq.
”At Gold&Green Foods our goal is not to turn everyone into a vegan; instead we want to encourage people to let go of eating meat at every meal out of mere habit. We also want to show that you're not really giving up on anything by selecting a plant-based alternative.”
But what should be done to encourage more people to actively take climate action in their everyday lives?
“There has to be alternatives that are not only climate-smart but serve their purpose superbly well. And making those alternatives needs to be good business. Gold&Green Foods is part of the European Plant-based Foods Association (ENSA), which aims to mainstream plant-based foods by raising awareness about these products amongst policy makers.”
“I don’t always see it while having my hands in the dirt, but I know we’re changing the food culture. And it feels good. It really felt like people were just waiting for a product like ours to appear. At first, we only told a handful of people about Pulled Oats®, because we wanted to patent it. And when we let people know about the product, it suddenly went viral and people really embraced the Pulled Oats.”
So can plant-based proteins truly hit the jackpot and become part of the solution to climate change? Only time can tell, but one thing is certain: we need to adapt new eating habits to reach the 1.5 degree target as set in the Paris Agreement. Itkonen and her colleagues have shown that it is entirely possible.
“I truly believe there’s a solution to everything, no matter how daunting the problem is. When trying to influence culture and create huge and sustained change, it’s important to pick your battles and use your energy wisely and be patient enough to take it one step at a time, not striving for perfection. Everyone can find a way to make an impact that extends beyond their own everyday life.”
At Spark Sustainability, we couldn't agree more.
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