For revolutionizing how we eat—with AI as the secret ingredient
Habitat loss. Water stress. Climbing greenhouse gas emissions. Meat and dairy production do a real number on the planet. Producing 1 pound (0.45 kilograms) of beef, for example, uses about 1,800 gallons (6,814 liters) of water. Looking to ease that environmental burden—and pull in eco-conscious consumers—more companies are leaning into plant-based alternatives.
Most are simple swaps: Think oat or almond milk as a substitute for cow’s milk. But Chilean vegan food manufacturer NotCo takes a different tack, using AI to reverse engineer the molecules in animal products, then combing through that data to create plant-based recipes. The result? Non-dairy ice cream and faux cheeseburgers built to be indistinguishable in taste, smell and texture from the originals.
Marcos Zanon leads the company’s data-driven prototype projects, analyzing recommendations churned out by NotCo’s patented AI technology (known as Giuseppe) and then feeding recipes back into the machine for further refinement. To give the company’s NotMilk the same scent as dairy milk, for instance, Giuseppe zeroed in on the aromatic compounds known as lactones, and pinpointed a combo of cabbage and pineapple as a plant-based way to create the same taste.
Before turning his talents to vegan product development projects, Zanon worked as a chef in São Paulo and in Michelin-starred restaurants in Barcelona. He spent four years developing more conventional products, such as seasoned meats, as an R&D culinary chef for BRF, one of the largest global food companies. At NotCo, Zanon and the project teams test more than 100 recipes a month. When a suggestion seems like a potential hit, he develops a plant-based product prototype in NotCo’s experimental kitchen. As the AI tech builds up knowledge, the development cycles are getting shorter: The startup’s first commercial product, NotMayo (which uses chickpeas and lupin beans rather than eggs), took 18 months to develop. Compare that to NotChicken, which the company landed on in a mere 2 months.
Since its first product hit Chilean grocery stores in 2017, growth has been both meteoric and multidimensional. The brand has expanded globally, added consumer products like NotMilk, NotBurger and NotIceCream to its portfolio, and partnered with big name restaurants, including Burger King and Shake Shack, on new menu items. In March, NotCo also announced a partnership with Kraft Heinz to help speed plant-based alternatives of the food giant’s famous products to grocery shelves.
That growth shows no signs of slowing, either. Last year, NotCo raised US$235 million in funding (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and tennis superstar Roger Federer are among its investors), upping its valuation to US$1.5 billion.