Jul 15, 2021
By Trevor Mallo
Sundial Foods: Take Another Bite, the Secret is the Skin!

The AltProtein space is abuzz, but lacking in products that engender the same finger-licking scrumptiousness of devouring a plate of tasty wings. Sundial Foods developed a novel processing technology for creating plant-based whole cuts of meat — complete with skin, meat and bone. The beauty is in how it ends up on your plate from only eight clean-label ingredients. Dr. Jun Axup, CSO of SOSV’s IndeBio sat down with co-founders Jessica Schwabach and Siwen Deng to reflect on Sundial’s journey of discovery.

The crazy thing about our wings is that all the texture and complexity – the skin, meat, muscle, and bone – comes from just eight clean ingredients.

Jessica Schwabach, CEO of Sundial Foods

Can you tell us a little bit about what the product you’ve created is?

At Sundial we’re making plant-based whole cuts, and the first thing we’re launching is chicken wings. So the basic premise is that for plant-based meats, there’s a single processing method, called high moisture extrusion, that’s used to create most of what you see on the market. It’s a really cool and versatile process, and can give you a nice protein base to work with, but then you are going to need more processing and some less pleasant ingredients — binders like methylcellulose for instance — to make a cohesive and meatlike product. Creating something like the complex cuts of meat that we are doing would require even more processing and assembly work.

So the process that we’ve developed allows us to have more of a one-and-done approach.  Like extrusion, we combine plant ingredients under thermal processing to generate a fibrous bite texture, but there are two key differences. First, we don’t have that shear, so we’re able to create a cohesive three dimensional product in one shot – no assembly required later. Second, we don’t just use the functionality of protein isolates to create these fibers — we use intrinsically present starches, fiber, and so on to our advantage when we’re trying to create this texture. Not only is the structure of our fibers and skin built differently, but once we’re done with this one thermal process, we’ve got a whole, cohesive, already delicious cut of plant-based meat. It’s much simpler.

And the reason we’re starting with chicken wings is just because people love them. It’s just a really nice experience — part of a chicken that’s genuinely fun to eat. Like seriously — Americans eat something like 1.4 billion wings over Super Bowl Weekend. But animal free versions are sorely lacking, and we know how to make them, so here we are.

And you’ve actually been able to make some and prototype them in stores and Europe. Can you tell us a little bit about the customer feedback and what you’ve learned?

Yes. So we did test them for two months in about 40 grocery stores in Switzerland last year, late 2020. And we got some super interesting feedback.  We asked a lot of questions. Probably the leading question is, is the concept of a whole cut with skin meat and bone made from plants something that’s just currently too weird for consumers, which we were worried about because when you look at the product, it’s a bit jarring or uncanny how much it looks like chicken.

What we found is that people are actually attracted to it by appearance.

People also liked that it was clean label and high protein, which comes from our process, so we were quite happy about that. Interestingly, the product was chickpea based and we thought this would be important because it’s a differentiator from soy or pea-based proteins, but consumers didn’t seem to care so much about that as long as it was healthy.

But the most interesting thing we learned about the product was that people really liked the plant-based skin. I know it sounds sort of weird because it seems like something that is just a strange concept, but it really takes things to the next level in terms of not only the initial appearance, but also the cooking experience and similarity to chicken. Or to put it more simply it just tastes good.

Looking at the cell based meat industry, with the first cell based chicken for sale being approved in Singapore, what do you see as the near future  — the convergence — between cell-based and plant-based meats? Where do you position Sundial?

Interesting question. 

The raison d’être for Sundial is that we need to provide center of plate protein options that are not derived from concentrated animal feeding operations because these operations cannot sustainably meet protein demand. If making protein taste like meat is what will make people buy it then we can do that, as long as we’re making sure it stays nutritious and is truly on par with or even better than meat in that regard. Also of course it’s gotta taste really good.

And cell-based meat has a similar purpose. And I think that both of them will take chunks out of the animal agriculture industry, but not necessarily out of each other. I guess it remains to be seen and everybody’s wondering, but I do feel that the consumer segments won’t overlap that much.