The Van Trump Report

I’ve Eaten a Turducken but What the Heck is Tofurky with Algae?

Many of my rural friends have had “turducken” and it’s damn good, especially around Thanksgiving time. For those who don’t “turducken” is simply a deboned chicken stuffed into a deboned duck, which is then stuffed into a partially deboned turkey. Each layer is traditionally separated with stuffing or sausage, creating a layered effect when the bird is sliced after roasting. But this story is not about good old backwoods cooking, this is about something that’s supposed to be much more healthy… called Tofurky, I was guessing a blend of tofu and turkey. 

First introduced in 1995, several decades before meat-alternatives were mainstream, the fake turkey roast instantly became comedic fodder for everyone from late night talk show hosts to “The Simpsons.” 26-years later, Tofurkey is estimated to be a $50 million a year business with a loyal customer base for its products, which could soon include one of the first algae-based meat alternatives to hit the market.

Tofurky is partnering with “Triton Algae Innovations”, which has been working on its algae formulations since 2013. Triton has three algae products that it believes have market potential, all of which utilize Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, a single-celled freshwater green algae species that can also grow in fermentation tanks. The particular variety Tofurky will utilize is called “Essential Red,” which is indeed red thanks to the use of UC light to stimulate a color change in the green algae. Exposing the algae to light also stimulates the production of “heme,” which is the magical molecule that makes meat taste like meat.

Jaime Athos, president and CEO of Tofurky, said the new line will be jointly marketed under the Tofurky and Triton brands. However, the companies aren’t ready to share exactly what the new product will be. Athos says only that “the result will entail products that resonate with our core audience, and also be attractive to the rapidly growing segment of new flexitarians increasingly drawn to plant-based foods.”

Tofurky has benefited from the new breed of plant-based meat consumers. The company’s holiday roast sales surged nearly +25% last year leading up to Thanksgiving while the company’s vegan ham witnessed a +600% increase in sales during Easter. The company behind Tofurky, Turtle Island Foods, has relied on soy and wheat as its base proteins since 1980 when unemployed naturalist Seth Tibbott took his $2,500 life savings and tried his hand at making tempeh, a traditional Japanese food made from fermented soybeans. Athos, Tibbott’s stepson, took over in 2005.

Remarkably, Tofurky just received its first round of outside funding in 2019. The funding came in the form of a $7 million loan led by philanthropists who support the company’s mission. That pales in comparison to some of the massive funding deals led by today’s brand of meat-alternative startups. Beyond Meat, for instance, raised over $100 million before going public and has a valuation of around $8 billion. But Tibbot and Athos are quick to point out that Tofurky is actually profitable whereas Beyond Meat and other startups are still operating in the red. Tofurky also remains a family-owned business, which was of primary importance to Tibbott.    

Tofurky’s new partner Triton is actually a spinoff from the University of California San Diego that has been working simultaneously on a business-to-business platform and a proprietary plant-based tuna product. It’s not clear if Tofurky’s new algae-based food is a type of seafood but that is one of the few categories that the company currently doesn’t have a product. In total, Tofurky has about 40 different products ranging from chicken to hot dogs and sausages, and even cheese.

No company currently has an algae-based protein product on the market, though several have announced collaborations. Unilever is working with a company called Algenuity and Nestlé is partnering with Corbion, all with plans to develop next-generation algae-based foods, though no specific products have been announced. Tofurky and Triton hope to have their algae product on the market beginning in the first half of 2022. (Sources: FoodDive, Los Angeles Times, Forbes)

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