Tuesday, September 27, 2022

How the ‘Most Sustainable Ice Cream Ever Made’ Plans to Eclipse Dairy With Plants

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Dairy-free ice cream brand Eclipse Foods says it has figured out how to do more than just mimic conventional ice cream. It says it can replace it entirely with a roster of unusual plant-based ingredients.

When it comes to dairy-free ice cream, there is no shortage of options. From oat to cashew, soy, rice, coconut, hemp, and even avocado, consumers seeking to eat sustainably have never had more to choose from.

But Oakland, California-based Eclipse Foods says there’s still work to be done. A late-comer to the category—the company launched just before the pandemic hit in 2019—Eclipse isn’t out to sit alongside dairy ice cream. Its goal is to completely replace it.

“The number one reason people avoid plant-based dairy is taste, so we make it a top priority to deliver delicious, culinary-forward flavors,” Aylon Steinhart, CEO and Co-Founder of Eclipse Foods, told Ethos via email.

eclipse ice cream
Courtesy

Steinhart co-founded Eclipse with Thomas Bowman, CTO, who has an extensive background in the culinary arts and helped develop the vegan mung bean-based Just Egg. Bowman worked at 16 Michelin star restaurants and was twice nominated for the James Beard Rising Star Chef award.

“With [Bowman’s] impressive knowledge of the food space and plant-based industry, Eclipse was able to create non-dairy ice cream that exceeds consumers’ expectations on taste, texture, and flavor,” says Steinhart.

This includes a patent-pending process that combines heat, pressure, and other steps, to make plants taste just like milk but without complicated tech like precision fermentation or lab-grown cell-cultures. Eclipse says it can make plants behave like dairy, forming curds by way of micelles—microscopic structures that play an essential role in the taste, texture, and function properties of dairy.

“Eclipse has discovered a way to create plant-based micelles by selecting the right blend of plants and running them through our proprietary process,” Steinhart says. “The result is a plant-based dairy platform that allows us to create nearly any dairy product with the taste, texture, and functionality of dairy, but made entirely from plants.” 

a pint of eclipse
Courtesy

Using this tech, Eclipse has targeted conventional ice cream flavors like vanilla, mint chip, and chocolate, but it’s also working to expand its offerings and try unusual flavor profiles such as Sweet Potato & Salty Black Sugar Caramel, Cocoa Black Sesame Tahini, and Miso Maple Sesame Candy Crunch. 

The company has partnered with some of the best chefs in the world to develop these flavors, including two three-Michelin-starred chefs: Michael Tusk of Quince and Corey Lee of Benu, as well as James Beard award winner Ken Oringer of Little Donkey, among others.

Unlike the usual suspects in dairy-free ice cream, Eclipse turned to less common ingredients. “Yes, there really is potato in Eclipse,” says Steinhart. It’s a core ingredient used for flavor and texture.

The potato is one of the most popular crops in the world. They’re grown in every country on the planet and are a core staple in the global food system, just behind corn, wheat, soy, and rice.

“Eclipse may very well be the most sustainable ice cream ever made.”

-Aylon Steinhart, CEO Eclipse Foods

Potato could soon be appearing in more dairy-free products, too. Swedish company Dug is the best-known brand producing potato milk. It’s set to open one of the largest plant-based dairy facilities in the world next year, which could mean another option for your local barista.

But here, potato is part of a cohort. Steinhart says the key was to not solely rely on a single hero ingredient for its base. Eclipse’s ice cream features other common plants like cassava and corn alongside potatoes. “In creating a true dairy replacement from plants, we looked at all the different components of dairy milk (protein, fat, vitamins and minerals, etc.) and replaced them with a unique blend of plants,” he says.

But there’s another reason Eclipse chose these plants, too. “[T]he plants Eclipse uses are some of the most sustainable crops in the world,” Steinhart says, “so Eclipse may very well be the most sustainable ice cream ever made.”

It’s a big statement, but necessary. Even though demand for dairy-free and meat-free options continues to rise, and options are on the menus at most major restaurant chains, they are still overshadowed by their conventional counterparts. “Unfortunately, the dairy-free ice cream market is still a tiny portion (three percent) of the total ice cream market,” says Steinhart.

And while that’s a bigger number than it may sound given the size of the category (the global ice cream market size was valued at $79 billion in 2021), there’s no time to waste in expanding it. Shifting to a more sustainable food system is one of the easiest ways to combat climate change. The IPCC’s recent climate assessment report called for a 30 percent reduction in methane emissions; livestock production is a leading cause of methane. Animal products are also putting pressure on resources including land, fresh water, and crops such as soy are a leading cause of Amazon deforestation.

For Eclipse, this commitment is personified in Honey, a 13-year-old former dairy cow, whom the company adopted on Earth Day 2021. “[Honey] reminds us that every day is a chance for a good new day to be kind to the planet, people, and all earth’s everyday creatures,” the company says on its website, where the cow features prominently.

While Honey is indeed a fan of Eclipse’s ice cream (she loves vanilla), she’s more than just a marketing ploy. For the team, she’s a constant reminder of Eclipse’s ethos—making products that save lives and the planet. And for the consumer, the hope is that she’s a visual reminder of the complicated food system, and how easy it is to choose a less complicated option.

“Honey is living a wonderful, relaxed, and truly humane life at a spacious and loving animal sanctuary in Sonoma California,” says Steinhart. “Amazingly, she also gets to spend her days with her son, Benjamin, who was rescued at the same time as she was. Most dairy cows have their babies taken away from them shortly after birth, so Honey and Benjamin are living a life that any sentient being deserves,” he says.

The urgency to replace dairy has brought more than $60 million in funding to Eclipse from investors including Sozo Ventures, Forerunner Ventures, Initialized Capital, Gaingels, and Prince Khaled’s KBW Ventures. It has also secured funding from Seth Goldman, the Chairman of Beyond Meat and Founder of Honest Tea; Alexis Ohanian, the Founder of Reddit; and Y Combinator, the world’s top tech accelerator.

Eclipse milkshake at Smashburger
The plant-based milkshakes are now available for purchase in all Smashburger locations nationwide. | Courtesy

As a result of the funding, the company recently partnered with the fast-food burger chain, Smashburger, for the first-ever dairy-free milkshake available at a national chain. “These investors have been incredible supporters of Eclipse and have allowed us to accelerate our growth and to make history,” Steinhart says.

“Our investors have also opened exciting doors for us,” Steinhart says Eclipse has been served at Hollywood movie premiers, among other high-profile events. But no matter where Eclipse is served, the results are often the same: people love the product and they can’t believe it’s dairy-free.

While Eclipse has seen its retail placement boom in recent months, the pandemic certainly slowed things down a bit. But now, three years in, it’s full steam ahead, with plans to expand—this includes more ice cream flavors, as well as frozen novelty items, and other dairy-free products.

“Consumers want more than just a dairy alternative like almond milk—they want a true replacement,” Steinhart said in a statement in June following the closing of its $40 million Series B.

“By creating products that are better in every way and that require no sacrifice, we are making the sustainable, healthy, and humane choice the default choice,” Steinhart says. “This will change the world.”

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