Benson Hill doubles down on plant-based ingredients with new business units


Dive Brief:

  • Benson Hill is launching two new business segments — Ingredients and Fresh — to help it meet growing demand for plant-based foods. The company uses CRISPR gene editing and data analytics to develop more nutritious, sustainable and better-tasting plant ingredients.
  • The Ingredients unit will use Benson Hill’s work developing a genomic map for yellow pea to create new varieties. The products will have reduced off-flavors, higher protein content and less money-, energy- and water-intensive processing characteristics. Benson Hill also is commercializing “ultra-high” protein soybean varieties in 2020 with lower water and energy usage and processing costs. 

  • The Fresh segment will develop and commercialize differentiated produce and functional foods by applying Benson Hill’s CropOS technology platform to its large grower base, distribution network and the retail relationships of its wholly owned subsidiary, J&J Family of Farms. 

Dive Insight:

Benson Hill’s mission is to undo all of the damage to nutrition and flavor the agriculture industry has wrought on plants in order to boost yield and shelf stability. These new business units demonstrate the company is ready to tackle two of the greatest opportunities to restore the potential of plants — increasing protein content and developing food as medicine. 

One plant that has been a focus for Benson Hill is the yellow pea. A common protein-rich ingredient in plant-based milks, yogurts, snack bars and meats, the yellow pea also has a bitter taste food manufacturers mask with sugar, salt and other ingredients. Benson Hill is working to eliminate this bitterness, which would reduce the need to add sweeteners and salt to food. It’s also aiming to boost the quality and quantity of yellow pea protein, upping its competitive potential against animal alternatives.

The new Ingredient segment is going to leverage the processing capabilities of Benson Hill’s Dakota Ingredients subsidiary, a yellow pea processor, to develop products for pet and plant-based human food. It will be testing premium yellow pea varieties to uncover those that meet food-grade, kosher and non-GMO certification standards. Benson Hill said it is having conversations with clients about its upcoming yellow pea protein ingredients.

The company, which works with a network of growers to raise its genetically modified crops and then collects the harvest for processing, announced in December it is working with Indiana’s Rose Acre Farms. The collaboration will help Benson Hill ramp up its soybean processing capacity and develop the supply chain for its high-protein soybeans that have above-average levels of oleic acids.

With its Fresh segment, Benson Hill will be chasing the potential of food as medicine, or what it has described as “the growing convergence between the produce and pharmacy aisles.” It’s an attractive market for the company to pursue.

A 2019 white paper from ingredients company Kerry Group found 65% of consumers seek functional benefits from their food and drink. And in separate research by Brightfield Group’s Evergi Consumer Insights platform, nearly two-thirds of consumers agreed an individual can substitute functional foods and beverages for some medicines. 

The new business units are launching as Benson Hill is flush with cash and expertise. In October, the company announced a Series D funding round of $150 million co-led by GV, the venture capital arm of Google parent Alphabet, to bring the total amount raised to $280 million. 

It also has fortified its executive bench, naming former Impossible Foods CFO and current AppHarvest president David Lee as an independent director, and hiring former B&G Foods board member DeAnn Brunts as CFO. And in February, it opened the doors on its Crop Accelerator, a new 47,000-square-foot research facility to ramp up development of plant-based proteins

Benson Hill is building a massive infrastructure to chase what is an equally massive opportunity: meeting consumer demand for healthier, more flavorful and more sustainable food choices. It’s a challenge “the traditional commodity model is not set up to meet that demand at scale,” CEO Matt Crisp said in a statement. But with its tech experience, grower partnerships and new business structure, it’s one that Benson Hill is in a better position to meet.