Photo: Ripple Foods/Facebook

By Piper Wheeler

In a gleaming lab in Emeryville’s biotech corridor, food scientists are busy perfecting what they hope is the future of dairy.

Local startup Ripple Foods amassed $15 million in venture capital funding during 2015. Now the company is gearing up to launch its first run of products, expected to arrive in an unnamed national chain sometime this month. Ripple will join established brands — Almond Breeze, Rice Dream, So Delicious — in the “alternative dairy space,” a market whose current value tops $2 billion per year, according to some analysts.

Ripple founders Adam Lowry and Neil Renninger are plant-food proselytizers who aren’t afraid of hard science. While Ripple is their first food-focused venture, both have experience in climate science research and developing sustainable products.

Lowry is a former climate scientist from the Carnegie Institution for Science who was a co-founder of the San Francisco-based nontoxic, biodegradable cleaning supply company, Method Products. Renninger co-founded Emeryville’s Amyris, Inc., a company that produces renewable alternatives to petroleum-based products.

Adam Lowry of Ripple Foods. Photo: Ripple Foods
Adam Lowry of Ripple Foods. Photo: Ripple Foods

At Ripple, Lowry and Renninger have developed a method of isolating the natural proteins found in split yellow peas to create a nutritious goo. Unlike the soy-derived proteins that give soy milk its distinctive flavor, Ripple’s pea protein isolates have an enviable quality: they taste of nothing at all.

This smooth, white, high-protein substance is blended with water, sunflower oil, stabilizers and flavoring to produce a variety of “milks” — plain, sweetened, vanilla and chocolate. The result is a vegan drink that contains 8 grams of protein — the same as cow’s milk. As many non-dairy beverages lack protein, this fact alone may draw consumers.

Ripple is also free of common allergens like soy and nuts. It’s free of gluten as well as GMOs, which will also be a major selling point for dairy-free consumers who keep strict tabs on their food’s sourcing.

The “sweetened” version will contain about half the sugar that is found in a serving of cow’s milk. Nutritionists might point out that the cane sugar used to sweeten Ripple beverages is not quite equivalent to the sugars naturally present in cow’s milk. Renninger, however, said that his recipe’s high-protein content balances the sugar, and that Ripple is indeed a low glycemic beverage.

A serving will also provide 45% of daily calcium needs.

“And the calcium comes from the protein, meaning it’s more bio-available and easily absorbed,” Renninger said.

On the other side of the table, Lowry is eager to hype his product’s environmental bona fides, and has clearly been spending time with some drought-conscious Californians.

Neil Renninger of Ripple Foods. Photo: Ripple Foods
Neil Renninger of Ripple Foods. Photo: Ripple Foods

“Every single gallon of almond milk requires a thousand gallons of water!” Lowry said, still incredulous. (This number is up for debate, and it changes depending on methods of calculation.) Regardless, cow’s milk is still worse: depending on who you ask, it demands from 125% to 200% as much water as almond milk.

The water required to create Lowry and Renninger’s plant-based milks is, in comparison, a mere drop in the bucket. Ripple’s founders estimate that their product uses 96% less water than almond milk, and 98.5% less water than cow’s milk.

For now, French-raised peas are causing Ripple’s carbon footprint to shoot up a bit. “It’s neck and neck with almond milk,” Lowry said, with some consternation. “But that will improve with U.S.-grown peas.”

By the end of 2016, all ingredients will be sourced entirely from the U.S., the founders said.

Also in the works is an organic label, which Renninger acknowledges their target audience will look for.

“Really, though, the product sells itself,” Lowry said, lauding the milk’s body, protein and taste.

Consumers will decide for themselves before too long. Bay Area stores will begin stocking Ripple products this month.

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