“What if instead of just being less bad, we could actually use food to help reverse climate change?” That’s a question Jennifer McKnight, co-founder and chief marketing officer of Airly Foods, asks often – and one that led her and her co-founders to start a company that bills itself a maker of “climate-friendly” snacks.
The St Louis, Missouri-based startup is one of a small but growing handful of companies making and marketing foods said to be better for planetary health. These foods are made using regenerative agriculture practices and in some cases are carbon-neutral.
They’re also predominately snack foods, which isn’t too surprising. Multiple studies have shown that snacking has gone up since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. At the same time, consumers are waking up to the fact that their eating habits impact the planet. The combination of these factors creates a wide-open opportunity for consumer packaged goods (CPG) startups.
Airly Foods is the first company launched through US CPG giant Post Holdings‘ subsidiary Bright Future Foods, which was founded in 2020 to incubate new innovations in food and beverages. Airly’s first product, Oat Clouds, is an oat-based cracker that comes in four different flavors: cheddar, sea salt, chocolate, and salted caramel.
The startup has partnered with scientists at Colorado State University as well as farmers to grow its oats on carbon-converting farms that use cover cropping, precision ag, no-till farming, and other zero-carbon farming practices. For the emissions that are generated through minimal processing and transportation, Airly invests in carbon credits that back US agriculture and forestry projects.
The company says each box of crackers removes between 18 and 21 grams of carbon dioxide from the air, or “2,500 to 2,900 beach balls’ worth of fresher air.” Boston agtech startup Soil Metrics, just acquired by Indigo Ag, is Airly’s key advisor when it comes to verifying its carbon claims. While Airly hasn’t yet publicly named any other products it is working on, its founders assure that crackers are just the start.
The company sees communication with consumers as essential to to the success of these climate-friendly snacks.
“It’s a matter of communicating so that they understand they can partner with us today,” Bright Future Foods’ co-founder and chief supply chain officer Kris Corbin tells AFN.
“If we can get that consumer partnership that we’re seeking, funding will flow here. Many companies will join and I’ve actually been amazed when I think how fast we could flip this food system. The one piece that we just need to do at this point is have the time to show the consumers.”
WhatIf Foods: an instant success
Thousands of miles away from St Louis, a company in Singapore asked the “what if” question so often they named their brand after it.
The company’s sustainability focus covers three main areas: leveraging an ingredient’s natural nutrients to boost the health benefits in products, using crops grown with regenerative ag practices, and working closer to farmers with shorter supply chains.
The bambara groundnut is a good illustration of these principles. Often called ‘bamnut’ for short, it’s an extremely hardy legume indigenous to parts of Africa that can grow in poor soil conditions and without pesticides. It’s known as a ‘complete food,’ with its seeds containing 63% carbohydrate, 19% protein, and 6.5% fat, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
It’s also a key ingredient in WhatIf’s soups, shakes, and noodles. The nutritional profile of bamnuts makes them a good fit for the company’s ‘better-for-you’ mission around instant foods, while the legume’s status as an important crop for smallholder farmers ticks the boxes on WhatIf’s supply chain goals.
WhatIf Foods says on its website that it saves carbon dioxide emissions equivalent to 1,000 Boeing 737 flights around the world every year and water equivalent to the annual drinking water needs of all North Americans.
Back in the US, PlanetFWD’s Moonshot brand has made a name for itself as another climate-friendly snacking option. PlanetFWD itself makes software that brands can use to calculate their carbon footprints and improve their environmental impact. It follows, then, that PlanetFWD’s own food brands are as focused on carbon as they are on tasty snacking.
Like Airly, Moonshot makes crackers it says are carbon-neutral, as they are sourced from regeneratively-grown heirloom wheat. The company says the wheat and its crackers’ other key ingredient, sunflower oil, are traceable back to local farmers which PlanetFWD and Moonshot have direct relationships with. The wheat is grown two miles from the mill, which in turn is 85 miles away from the facility where the crackers are made, cutting down overall transportation emissions during production. Moonshot crackers are available via the brand’s website and at some brick-and-mortar retailers in the US including Whole Foods, The Fresh Market, and Bristol Farms.
Founder Julia Collins told Forbes last year that she hopes Moonshot can create a new category called “climate-friendly food.”
“Everybody has the right to take action on climate change,” she said. “And we think with 8 billion people eating every day, rethinking the way that we eat and rethinking our food choices is a great place to start.”
Getting the global snack industry to go carbon-neutral is likely to be a years-long process tied to ongoing developments in regenerative ag and carbon farming – not to mention where foodtech investment dollars wind up.
To echo Corbin’s earlier point, the industry will also need massive interest from consumers to be successful. That’s no small feat, regardless of what the headlines say. The jury is still out on how confusing — or useful — carbon labeling on consumer products actually is. Meanwhile, some research has suggested there is a risk of greenwashing when it comes to calling foods ‘climate-friendly’ or ‘carbon-neutral.’
It’s a conversation likely to grow in volume during 2022 as greater numbers of consumers voice a desire to eat more sustainably – and more companies like Airly, WhatIf, and Moonshot bring products to market in the hopes of satiating that appetite.