Chilean food-tech start-up NotCo uses artificial intelligence (AI) to identify the optimum combinations of plant proteins when creating vegan alternatives to animal-based food products. NotCo’s implementation of AI could revolutionise research and development in the food industry. The company, set up in 2015, has attracted investment from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Future Positive, a US investment fund founded by Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter.

NotCo’s machine learning algorithm compares the molecular structure of dairy or meat products to plant sources, searching for proteins with similar molecular components. NotCo has a database containing over 400,000 different plants, including macronutrient breakdown and chemical composition. These factors are used to predict novel food combinations with the target flavour, texture, and functionality.

NotCo founder and CEO Matias Muchnick said, “Our goal is to accelerate rapid advancement of science-driven plant-based alternatives that consumers will readily adopt.”

AI’s success in creating the plant-based alternatives

In 2017, NotCo launched its first product NotMayo (a plant-based mayonnaise) in Chile. Within eight months, it had become the country’s third best-selling mayonnaise brand. The company’s second product, NotMilk, has been developed using its AI algorithm.

The NotCo algorithm analysed a huge list of plant-based foods and identified plant molecules that behave the same way as the molecules in milk. It found that molecules in cabbage juice concentrate and pineapple juice concentrate replicate the taste of cow’s milk. The combination of these ingredients together generated lactones, a type of aroma compound that contributes to the flavour of milk products. Apart from these two, the start-up also identified Chicory root and coconut to have the same properties as milk. These ingredients are combined with vitamin D and B12 as well as pea protein. The company claims that the milk produced can taste, cook, and froth like a typical cow’s milk. NotCo has ambitious plans to sell its plant-based milk products at nearly 3,000 US grocery stores in 2021, in addition to making it available at retail stores in Chile, Colombia, Argentina, and Brazil.

NotCo using AI to access a growing plant-based alternatives market

Over the past two years, the plant-based food industry has experienced significant growth – 29% compared to 2.2% in general food retail. NotCo aims to capitalise on consumer adoption of vegan and flexitarian diets amid ethical, environmental, and health concerns over meat and dairy consumption. According to GlobalData’s 2021 consumer survey, 22% of US consumers are consuming plant-based foods more frequently. Indeed, NotCo reports that 92% of its consumers are not vegetarians, suggesting its products appeal to flexitarian consumers.

NotCo has plans to make plant-based burgers and ice cream using the same AI technology. AI can accelerate the design stages of food development from years to months. However, the recipes produced by the technology still need to be validated for taste.

NotCo claims its plant-based milk uses 74% less energy, 92% less water, and produces 74% fewer emissions than regular milk production. With consumers becoming increasingly environmentally conscious, these environmental benefits, alongside other factors such as health and taste, will give its products an advantage.

AI is a major theme across all industries in 2021. Innovative applications of AI technology can give companies an advantage. NotCo is leading the use of AI in the plant-based alternative market.