The lead ingredient of a new plant-based brand pairs with coffee in milk form, can add nutrition to ramen, and is said to be more sustainable than other alternative proteins — but you’ve probably never heard of it.
The star of WhatIf’s product portfolio is what it calls the BamNut, or bambara nut, a legume native to Africa. Food scientists have pitched it in recent years as an underutilized crop that can help improve global nutrition levels. The bambara nut contains better-for-you attributes including a nearly 24% protein content, 5.5% fiber and it is rich in minerals.
Its taste, according to WhatIf co-founder and CEO Christoph Langwallner, can be described as nutty or earthy.
“It isn’t almond, it is not soy, it is BamNutty,” said Langwallner.
WhatIf Foods’ headquarters is in Singapore, its factories are in Malaysia and Australia and its BamNuts are sourced from Ghana. Last month, it opened an office in Los Angeles, as it launched its first two products in the U.S. — BamNut Noodles and BamNut Milk — on its website. The company told Food Dive it is finalizing the logistics of rolling the products out to large retail chains and foodservice providers in the coming months.
WhatIf did not initially plan to produce food. It instead started as a science incubator in Singapore in 2014, according to Langwallner, and studied how biodiversity can be brought back into food. Langwallner, who hails from Austria, first learned about the bambara nut years earlier when he met a professor from the University of Nottingham who referred to it as one of the “crops of the future” and one that can become a staple.
“We are redesigning, trying to bring back biodiversity not only bound for farmers to be healthy and resilient, but also bring more colors and textures on the plates of consumers and be part of that journey for a diversified diet,” Langwallner said.
The name of the company came about after Langwallner and his team asked themselves “what if” questions, such as “What if we could find a way to make instant noodles, shakes, soups and plant based milk healthy?” Along with all of its foods being plant-based, WhatIf uses the phrase “planet-based” to describe its process of using regenerative agriculture to grow its ingredients along with its pledge to avoid artificial ingredients.
Tackling the ramen space has been a significant endeavor for the company, as it acquired technology that allowed the noodles to be cooked through air-frying without requiring any deep frying, which other brands use in their manufacturing process. Its ramen varieties include BamNut, moringa, pumpkin and charcoal.
According to Langwallner, WhatIf’s ramen actually has a longer shelf life than typical ramen because of its air-frying technology, which is patented by the company.
“The limiting factor of instant noodles to supply a shelf life is actually rancidity and that is caused by deep frying, and since we don’t deep fry, our ramen has a longer shelf life.”
WhatIf says its ramen provides a healthier alternative in a space dominated by deep-fried instant noodles, as the bambara nut adds protein and nutrition. The ramen has three times more dietary fiber than conventional offerings, according to the company.
New areas for the bambara nut
Just as WhatIf has used the bambara nut to improve upon ramen, it has also tried to make a better plant-based milk. As other plant-based milks flooded the market, WhatIf worked to perfect and simplify the recipe for BamNut Milk, condensing it to a few ingredients: water, Bambara nuts, coconut oil, shea butter and added vitamins. The milk is available in three varieties: Everyday, Barista (designed to pair with coffee), and Airy. The latter is a lighter version that the company said pairs well with smoothies or bubble tea. The beverage has a nuttier taste than other plant-based milk options, according to Whatif.
The product also has a shorter ingredient list than many other plant-based milks, according to the company.
“If you look at many other products in the market out there, these externalizing thicknesses and starches and so forth, we stay away from over-engineering the products and use the old style of making it happen,” Langwallner said.
As it continues its U.S. launch, WhatIf isn’t just hoping to convince consumers to make sustainability a focus of their diet, but also capitalize on the younger generations who already do. In a blog post, the company said the bambara nut is a sustainable crop because it has the potential to capture nitrogen from the atmosphere and convert it into nitrogen compounds in the soil. One gram of protein from bambara nuts takes only one-tenth of the water required to obtain one gram of protein from cattle, according to WhatIf.
The target consumer for WhatIf is millennials and Gen Z who care about climate change, but many of who feel powerless about how to curb it as a consumer — something the company hopes to change. It plans to advertise to young people through influencers on social media to spread its message and increase awareness of the BamNut.
“Everything that we do is for this generation that is disenfranchised, doesn’t have power yet and basically has a huge anxiety level because the climate is changing and they can’t do anything about it,” Langwallner said.
Despite initially debuting with ramen and milk, WhatIf has larger ambitions. As the bambara nut is new to the U.S. market, Langwallner said there are many opportunities for its application in different spaces in the food industry. And the company hopes to influence a growth in industry demand for the bambara nut.
“My ambition is not one of a smallish company,” Langwallner said. “My ambition is to create as large as we possibly can take it, into the hundreds of thousands of metric tons of raw material, because then the bambara nut becomes a systematic crop for many and not just a few.”