ST. PAUL, MINN. – Spoonshot, the market researcher that uses artificial intelligence to identify emerging trends, has published its list of the top 25 entrepreneurial innovators in the food and beverage space. The top five include Hidden Gems Beverage Co., Mikuna Foods Inc., Grounded Foods Co., Natural Heaven Pasta and Rae Wellness.

Spoonshot’s report also looked beyond the entrepreneurs and identified three leading trends that are driving innovation in food and beverage, including the development of alternatives, indulgent wellness and sustainability.

“Product innovation is typically measured by commercial success,” said Kishan Vasani, co-founder and chief executive officer of Spoonshot. “While that’s an important lens, it’s a lagging indicator. Spoonshot wanted to identify and highlight emerging companies that have been courageous in their product development using non-financial signals.”

To reach its conclusions, Spoonshot reviewed more than 7,000 startups from around the world, narrowed that group to its top 25 and then dug deeper into the trends each entrepreneur is trying to capitalize upon. Other criteria used in the research included that the companies had been in operation fewer than five years, none had been acquired by a larger company and each has fewer than 20 products in their portfolio.

Philadelphia-based entrepreneur Hidden Gems Beverage Co. is the business behind the brand Reveal, a ready-to-drink beverage made from avocado seeds. It has 15 calories, probiotics from being formulated with apple cider vinegar and is certified as upcycled. Sheetal Bahirat and Zuri Masud are the founders and in August 2021 the brand made its market debut in Philadelphia through its partnership with goPuff, a food delivery platform.

Mikuna Foods Inc., Santa Barbara, Calif., is a manufacturer of protein powders formulated with chocho powder. Chocho is an Ecuadorian bean crop high in protein. It is specifically high in the amino acids leucine, lysine and valine, according to the company. Mikuna markets the chocho it uses as being regeneratively grown.

Grounded Foods Co., Los Angeles, is a manufacturer of plant-based cheese formulated with hemp seed and “ugly” cauliflower. In October 2021, the company raised $2.5 million in pre-Series A funding.

Natural Heaven Pasta, Pompano Beach, Fla., manufactures alternative pastas and rice formulated using heart of palm. The products check several wellness buckets, including being keto-friendly, low glycemic, paleo and gluten-free.

And Rae Wellness, Minneapolis, offers supplement and functional chocolates with such benefits as calm, digestive health, energy and immunity, to name a few. Founded in 2019, the company’s products are specifically formulated to meet the needs of women and use such ingredients as berries, adaptogens, algae and herbs.

The trends driving innovation

While once the sole purview of milk and meat, the market for alternatives is growing, according to Spoonshot. The market researcher noted the ingredients used by Grounded Food are unusual and allow for the products to be categorized as dairy-free, nut-free and soy-free. The use of hemp and ugly cauliflower also allows the brand to promote its sustainability bona fides.

“Nuts and starches have thus far been the main ingredients in plant-based cheeses, but Grounded’s use of novel ingredients like hemp and cauliflower means that this sector has just started to scratch the surface in terms of what can go into cheese alternatives, expanding the inclusivity of these products,” Spoonshot said. 

Regarding Natural Heaven Pasta, Spoonshot said heart of palm is high in fiber, low in fat, contains various vitamins and minerals and has 17 amino acids, making it a source of protein. Products made using the ingredient are gluten-free, low carbohydrate and low glycemic.

“The prevalence of lifestyle diseases continues to expand around the globe and switching to healthier alternatives can sometimes be difficult, not just from a taste perspective but also because healthier alternatives may just not be easily available,” Spoonshot said. “Alternatives to staples such as those by Natural Heaven can address a range of needs — plant-based, allergen-friendly, diet-friendly and health-friendly.”

The report said health and wellness is no longer about completely forgoing a product or ingredient. It’s also about moderation and offering elements of wellness that resonate with consumers. 

Mikuna Foods markets its powders as lectin-free. Lectin is in legumes like lupin and has been associated with bloating and may pose risks to certain groups of people, according to Spoonshot.

“Highlighting solutions to address this issue via processing techniques can reassure consumers looking to switch to more plant-based foods but worried about meeting their nutritional requirements,” the company said. “The very cutting edge ‘lectin free’ promise could become a more mainstream claim in the future due to the prevalence of plant lectins in many legumes and how they aren’t the best for health.”

Rae Wellness’ functional chocolates tap into consumer desire for health attributes from products perceived as indulgent.

“The creation of new heat-resistant probiotics means that we will see their use in heat treated categories in the future, including indulgence categories like chocolate and candy,” Spoonshot said.

Hidden Gems’ positioning of Reveal as upcycled is part of a trend Spoonshot sees growing rapidly in the coming years.

“Upcycling is still a relatively new concept in the food space for consumers,” Spoonshot said. “While 6.1% of online consumer conversations on overall sustainability reference upcycling, only 0.5% of consumer conversations on sustainable food talk about upcycling. In consumer media circles interest in upcycling grew by a whopping 1,167%, but because it was from a very low base.”