Team Horiz

2023 R&D Teams of the Year: Ripple Foods

Sept. 3, 2023
Our third and final R&D Team of the Year created a great product, then overcame wartime shortages to keep it on grocers’ shelves during a critical point for the company.

Kids drink a lot of milk, so naturally the market for non-dairy milk products designed for kids is vast. The product development team at Ripple Foods helped the company expand its Ripple Kids Milk line in 2022, and later that year ensured the company could continue making the line when the war in Ukraine devastated the supply of two key ingredients.

Ripple Foods, founded in 2015, has an R&D team comprised of 14 scientists from a range of countries, including Turkey, India, Cameroon and Morocco. The team includes food scientists, biotech experts, engineers with expertise in household products and even a beverage filtration expert.

“That makes for a wonderful clash of cultures and different experiences that people bring to the company,” says Andy Seaberg, vice president of R&D.

Ripple Foods’ product line includes protein shakes, soft serve ice cream and non-dairy milk products. All of them are based on Ripptein, a proprietary pea protein isolate made from yellow peas.

Ripple Kids Milk, launched in 2021, quickly proved to be one of the company’s most popular products. By 2022 the demand for the new product created a challenge for the R&D department: How could the company ramp up production of Ripptein while maintaining quality?

“When you scale the process, you’re making so much more of it than what you did before, and the things like the flavor and the functionality weren’t being consistently met as we scaled,” Seaberg says. “So we needed to refine that and hammer that out so we can have an ingredient going into our product that we can have confidence in, not only for the launch, but for our ongoing needs.”

Exactly how the R&D team succeeded at scaling up the production is proprietary, but the result was a steady supply that met demand.

“We were able to meet that goal, so we’re able to replicate the product on a huge scale and enable the product pipeline,” Seaberg says.

The next challenge of 2022 was creating a sugar-free version of Kids Milk. The company listens closely to what its customers want – its consumer response team consistently monitors feedback from buyers – and heard that sugar-free Kids Milk was something they wanted. Meeting that demand involved creating a recipe that tapped the best flavors of the proteins without the benefit of sugar.

“When you have an unsweetened product, it showcases all the ingredients you have in there,” Seaberg says. “We know we’re the best ones out there when it comes to making really clean protein and combining it with dairy-free flavors to create a product that consumers love. That’s our sweet spot, and this unsweetened product is a showcase of that. It really shows the value of our intellectual property.”

The challenges Ripple’s R&D team overcame to scale up production of the key protein ingredient and create the sugar-free version of Kids Milk were overshadowed by a totally different situation: When Russia attacked Ukraine, the world supply of two important ingredients needed by Ripple Foods crashed. When that happened, the company’s R&D team sprang into action.

The Apollo 13 moment

“The biggest challenge we had in 2022 was to make sure we can keep our products on the shelf, which, for a small company like Ripple, is huge, because we are growing our business,” Seaberg explains. “And if we don't have products on the shelf at all, that could risk shutting down Ripple Foods.

“The war that is happening in Ukraine is just horrible on many fronts. But from a business perspective, it could have been really catastrophic for Ripple, if R&D couldn't find a solution for some of the key ingredients we use across our entire portfolio products, most notably, sunflower oil, as well as sunflower lecithin.”

The R&D team considered a variety of oils as a replacement for sunflower oil, including safflower oil, canola oil, palm oil and corn oil. They had to find something that worked well in the existing formulations for Ripple products – oils are not always interchangeable. Furthermore, because Ripple positions itself as a creator of healthy products, the oil they chose to replace sunflower oil could not have dramatically worse nutrition characteristics. This ruled out palm oil, for example, because it is higher in saturated fat.

Of course, flavor also played a major role. Seaberg explains that consumers don’t care that the company suddenly can’t get sunflower oil – they want their Kids Milk to taste the same each time they buy it. Corn oil was ruled out because of the distinct corn flavor and because Ripple’s customers expect only non-GMO ingredients (non-GMO corn is available, but Seaberg says consumers still would have doubts if they saw corn oil on the ingredients list).

Shelf-life was another challenge. They discussed the longevity of the oils with university experts and asked suppliers about the oxidative stability of each option.

“We negotiated our shelf life on a lot-to-lot basis to ensure, with the oils that we're putting in, that the product would be on shelf in the right amount of time and the consumer would not tell a difference,” Seaberg says. “Therefore, we wouldn't extend it too far, to the point that would go over the edge and make a negative impact to the consumer.”

Ultimately the researchers determined that safflower oil and canola oil both could be used, and the company settled on safflower mixed with some sunflower.

The R&D department undertook the same process with the sunflower lecithin. The Ripptein itself is a natural emulsifier, but not to a great enough extent to prevent some separation of the oil and water in the finished product. After extensive experimentation, they settled on a combination of gellan gum, guar gum and acacia gum to replace the sunflower lecithin as an emulsifier.

In the end, these replacements kept Kids Milk on retailers’ shelves.

“Here we are, little Ripple Foods, we're hitting 98%, 99% fill rates with all of our customers during a time that's traumatic for the industry,” Seaberg says. “We are able to keep our product on shelf, without the consumer end noticing any difference in flavor or taste, while making all the adjustments to our labels in time, to ensure we remain in compliance with all regulations. We called it the Apollo 13 moment for Ripple Foods.”

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