“We’re basically broadening our epicurean lifestyle to include some very unique new ingredients and products that can diversify our culinary outlook.”
Alicia talks to food scientist Cheryl Mitchell, who developed Rice Dream and the Elmhurst Milked line of nut, grain, and seed milks. They discuss how she came to focus on vegan milks, the HydroRelease process she created, and why we need to diversify protein sources in order to keep feeding the human population.
Written and presented by Alicia Kennedy
Produced by Sareen Patel
ALICIA KENNEDY: This is Meatless, a podcast about eating. I’m Alicia Kennedy, a food and drink writer. I’ll be having conversations with chefs, writers, and more, about how their personal and political beliefs determine whether or not they eat meat. The show will ask the question, “How do identity, culture, economics and history affect a diet?”
In this episode, I talk to food scientist Dr. Cheryl Mitchell, the person who developed Rice Dream and the Elmhurst Milked line of nut, grain, and seed milks. We discussed how she came to focus on vegan milks, the HydroRelease process she created, and why we need to diversify protein sources in order to keep feeding the human population.
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ALICIA KENNEDY: Thank you, Dr. Cheryl Mitchell, for being on Meatless with me, and taking the time out of your day.
CHERYL MITCHELL: No problem. Thank you, Alicia.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?
CHERYL MITCHELL: That’s, I think you’re the first one to ask me that question. Sure. I grew up in New Jersey, and my father was also a food scientist working for General Foods, and so many people know him because he’s the inventor of Pop Rocks.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Wow.
CHERYL MITCHELL: And, but also, he did the “cool” for Cool Whip and Cool ‘n Creamy, and what makes Tang, Tang. But, you know, so he was a food scientist, but I grew up, he had quite a large garden, let’s call it, I would say it’s a mini-farm actually. So we raised all our own vegetables and he was a big flower person too, and I think growing up having always fresh vegetables and understanding the importance of, and he did a lot of the cooking too, so growing up in the kitchen with him, every part, I think that’s what stunned me the most, was every part of the vegetables, once they’ve been cleaned and started in the cooking process, he used in the cooking.
So if you cooked some vegetables and you steamed them, the steamed water would be used in another part of the preparation. So nothing was wasted. And he would always comment about the minerals and the values in every part of the raw material that we were using. That there should be nothing that should be thrown away. And certainly there wasn’t, I’m the youngest of seven children, and so the food was very precious always and I think that’s impacted me the most. The second thing was, at, later in my life I also worked for General Foods for a while, so I had the pleasure of working with my father from time to time. And I would, I became aware of taking things from bench top, it’s one thing to make fudge, let’s say on benchtop, but think about, if you had to make that same fudge at 10,000 pounds at a time, as it would be in a commercial operation, to distribute food worldwide, and to stabilize the food. So it became a different question.
And so that’s where I lean most of my career as it turned out with regard to how to commercialize and make available highly nutritious foods, without, you know, using chemicals or additives or anything else because it just wasn’t necessary. We could do this by the process. And it was just a matter of figuring out how.
ALICIA KENNEDY: And so you come from, you know, your father being the inventor of these foods that are kind of, you know, they’re not, they’re definitely not…
CHERYL MITCHELL: We had many discussions about that one.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So why did you decide to focus on plant-based milks with your career?
CHERYL MITCHELL: You know, it started out, actually my PhD is in chemistry, and actually I was developing a carcinostatic drugs, basically drugs that would stop cancer, so it was more related, I was interested in the carbohydrates and how that works and everything. So I was, you know, a pretty strong medical and, a focus on the metabolism of carbohydrates and foods in general, and, you know, in figuring out how our body handles them, I also thought about how we would process them, very similar to how the body needed to process them and how it worked to process the foods. So I don’t know, it just, after the experience with Imagine Foods and, and basically, Robert was so focused at that time on getting the nutrition, but getting a good quality food material, and that’s where I really learned about the natural foods and had a very healthy respect for the industry that was just really starting up at that time. And so, I was just really focused on, anything I did, focused on maximizing a nutrition and getting it in a form that could be distributed worldwide.
ALICIA KENNEDY: How did you come to work with Imagine Foods and on the Rice Dream product? And how, what was the inspiration for Rice Dream?
CHERYL MITCHELL: OK. Actually I started working on the Rice Dream because of a meeting with Imagine Foods and Robert Nissenbaum and Kenny Becker, who were partners at the time. Robert was the one that had the restaurant, he was making the amazake, but knew that he couldn’t make large quantities of it, which he really wanted to distribute and stabilize it. He actually went to a company called Chico-San, you might remember Chico-San from the rice cakes? OK, well, they were in the process of being sold, but they were the first ones actually to try to make rice syrup in this country, and Robert had gone to them to see if they would make the amazake, which he knew that they were going through the amazake to make the rice syrup.
They were struggling so much with making the rice syrup from the amazake that, they contacted us, and, meaning myself and my husband, and said, “Can you do this?” And at that time, I said, “Yeah, let me see what you’re doing and I’m sure we can improve this and make it more commercialized.” And that’s really what started the whole process. They didn’t want to make it there. We started to set up our facility to make it for them. Chico-San was then bought by Heinz. Heinz didn’t want anything to do with a rice syrup or the rice milk. I’m sure they regret that decision right now, but that was their thinking at the time, they were trying to deal with the marketing, and of course, there was a surge of all of a sudden, even though the rice cakes had been out there for 10 years, all of a sudden the consumers thought, “Oh, this is the greatest thing since, you know, sliced bread.”
And the rice cake market started taking off. So they didn’t want, have anything to do with the rice milk. They didn’t understand the rice syrup. They didn’t understand the rice milk and they didn’t understand what Robert was trying to accomplish. And so that left Robert and I, and my first company, California Natural Products, to figure out how we were going to make the product and a package it aseptically. So we just took on those challenges and move forward. So that’s how we came into play. The difficulty was that Robert had been making a very traditional amazake, and the traditional amazake has all the fiber and pulp, and he knew that for this market we really needed to start with brown rice, was his goal, and maximizing the nutrient value. The problem was in the processing and trying to put it into an, an aseptic container, requires a lot of instantaneous heat. So you’re bringing up to high temperatures very quickly, and also cooling it very fast.
Well, those type of heat exchangers would be plugged very quickly by the, the fiber. And so we pulled out the fiber, but with the pulling out of the fiber, we also realized the protein was going out with a fiber. So, and there wasn’t anything we could do with about that at the time. So we went that route. We also went to using white rice because we couldn’t handle the, or stabilize the, oils, the natural oils in the brown rice. And so the product would oxidize very quickly. So we got rid of the, started using the white rice and adding the safflower oil, to make an emulsion. And then we had to use the various gums and stabilizers to keep everything in suspension. It was a product that served its purpose, meaning that people and consumers became aware for the first time that there could be something other than soy milk. That we could have rice milk. For people having allergies, and we promoted it to people that were looking for something that was hypoallergenic, and the rice milk worked very, very well and worked for many, many people.
So, for the next 20 years, in fact, the patents that I wrote for those and got for those, that development, were in use for the next 20 years just on the rice milk, but that’s where I deviated because knowing what I had to do to make the Rice Dream work, including adding a lot of calcium carbonate to make it to, to, so it wasn’t translucent, that it was more opaque. It was just wrong, and I knew that I could do better given a little bit more time. So after spending the time with my first company, California Natural Products, I sold my half and I took my research team and I said, “Look, we’re just,” I used all my money and I said, “We are going to figure out how to maximize the nutritional value of every rain, nut, and seed we can get our hands on, and we’re going to figure out how to do it in a very mechanical approach way.”
I said, “This business about grinding to a flower or grinding to a paste, which has been going on for the last 2000 years, is not the right approach.” And starting with that premise and the premise of getting everything in from the raw material, the nutrients in, that’s what we started working on. And it was a mechanical process and a huge change in how we first started working with raw materials, and that became the HydroRelease process.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, and can you explain how that allows for nut and grain milks without added gums and thickeners, which are so prevalent in most milks?
CHERYL MITCHELL: Right, and they’re prevalent in most milks because it’s mostly water. They can’t get enough of the grain, nut, or seed in there without fouling the heat exchangers, the processors. So that’s why they started using less and less of the raw material, and more stabilizers and gums to make it seem like there was a lot of the raw material in there. Our process is different because with the HydroRelease we are taking, and I liken it to power washing, so that you’re separating each of the natural compositions in the raw materials. So we start with a raw material. These are viable grains, nuts and seeds. And they’re, when you using this power washing, you’re just kind of sloughing off, just like layers at a time, the part, the composition, the carbohydrates, the oils are released, the, and the natural micronutrients which are really critical. This is your lecithins, your vitamins, your minerals. All of these, once released, start to recombine in a different way. And the most important one, that separation, is also the proteins from the fiber. And we realized that we needed to keep the fibers very long, because in making a milk-type product, you do want to remove the fibers, which by the way, we do utilize those fibers and other, other ingredients.
So all the ingredients that, everything that comes in is used so there’s no waste, but the rest of it, the proteins that are liberated, well, oh my gosh, they start to behave really uniquely and that, that was very important for us because, first of all, they become, I call them soft proteins, once liberated from the fiber instead of being an aggregate, and kind of a hard chewy aggregate, they become very, very soft, they hydrate very well and they kind of float on their own. They, you know, you don’t need to keep them in suspension. They kind of prefer to be in the suspension anyway. And especially when you’ve got the natural oils, have also been released along with the natural lecithins, this gets back to the simpler [inaudible], if you’re allowing the raw material, has pretty much all these constituents in it, but nobody was thinking in terms of releasing them so they can do their job that they would normally do.
And for the last 50 years in food science, all we’ve been doing is really putting a lot of people in business making a lot of ingredients when in fact all we had to do was take one of the basic ingredients and keep everything there, but liberate them so that they would have more functionality. And that’s what makes the milk products, and the Elmhurst milk products, so special, because we’ve done that in these milks and you can taste it, the, the creaminess, and this is the unsweetened varieties, only have two ingredients, the power of two, just water and the raw material. And when you taste it, you’re going to sit there and say, “Oh my gosh, it didn’t, it doesn’t really need anything else.”
ALICIA KENNEDY: And you originally called the HydroRelease process “cold milking,” which I think is interesting. What is the origin of that phrase?
CHERYL MITCHELL: Yeah well, you know, here we are trying to market the product. And at first, I think everybody said, “Well, it’s a cold,” I think they used the term “milking,” and they used the term “milling.” I kept on saying, “No, no, no, no, no, no, this is a milling process, so we’ve got to get that, that, that out.” But you hit on a very important plot point. When you are trying to educate the consumers as to what this technology is, that’s where we came up, and he said, “Well, you’ve got to come up with a name,” and I said, “Well, it’s kinda like, you know, power washing.” And that’s where we started on coming up with a name like “hydro release,” “water release.”
We’re using water to release all the different components of the grains, nuts, and seeds. And in that liberation process, we have a totally different material. Here’s the thing too, the fact that the proteins are released in this way is what makes them work and function so much different, so you don’t need the, you know, you can do the same function as a lot of the things in dairy milk, we haven’t even touched on that, although research-wise we’re, we’re getting there because we can ferment them to make yogurts, to make cheeses, to do everything, because our proteins are definitely released and so they automatically ferment just as the same way milk does. The cream that we’re making, we’re making a hemp cream and a peanut cream that is actually cream, that’s, you know, these creamers that are out there are just a formulated type of products, where our product is actually the cream. No different than dairy milk has dairy cream. OK? What that is, when you take the milk from the cow and, and then put it through a creamery separator, well, we do the exact same thing. After everything’s released, there are certain soluble proteins that like to go with the fat part, and sure enough, we put it through the creamery separator and voila, you have an actual cream.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Wow, that’s amazing.
CHERYL MITCHELL: Oh, it is. I can’t tell you. This is so exciting because of the similarities to the dairy market.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right. Right. So the dairy lobby doesn’t want these products to be called milk, and I’m sure they wouldn’t want them to call the cream either. What is your response to that dairy lobby movement around not calling plant-based milks milk?
CHERYL MITCHELL: OK. And, even with Gottlieb’s address on the issue and everything, in a way he’s got a point with regards to nutrition. If, the dairy milk has been the gold standard because of the protein content, the quality of the protein in the dairy milk. However, as the consumers have trended, and necessarily trended to a plant-forward situation, and consume, you know, a consumer trend of the flexitarians, and the, and just, put plant-forward in general, there’s, that, there’s for different reasons, health, ethical, and environmental reasons, the reality is we have to trend that way with the growing population in particular. While we’re very protein-positive now, nutrition, as time goes on and by 2030, 2040, we have a serious situation with regards to a prospective protein deficiency.
So have to look at other sources. And this is an evolution. So it’s not a revolution, as I keep pointing out to everybody, this isn’t going to happen overnight. This is an evolution where we have to really embrace the diversity of our raw materials, whether it’s dairy or whether it’s from plants. We’re basically broadening our epicurean lifestyle to include some very unique new ingredients and products that can diversify our culinary outlook. And that is where that’s important. And that it, that’s where we’re going right now, and that’s what this product has done now. In the past, when you referred to it as milk, that was a good transitional, to allow the consumers to realize, in fact that there are some funny stories about that because after the rice milk, we had gone out there and asked people and saying, “Well, do you know what oat milk is?” Or, “Do you know what,” these things hadn’t been developed yet, we had, but a lot of the other things, oat milk for, and then we started throwing in, “Well, what about pecan milk or pistachio milk?” “Oh yeah, yeah, I know what that is.” And they could describe it exactly. They’d never seen it before, but they understood, using the term milk, that this was a product that looked like milk, that could function, at least over cereal and, and really earlier on 70 percent of the usage of even rice milk was over cereal, so that people were just looking for replacement. What we’ve done is really a quantum leap, this is a nutritive plant milk. This is different from the other earlier milks that I would call non-nutritive, when you have a low calorie 30, 60, this is non-nutritive milk. Ours is a nutritive plant milk. It is a new category, and even with the, the two ingredients, but we put a lot of nut. Sometimes people ask, “well, you know, it’s expensive.” Well, really, on a nut-per-nut basis, ours is much cheaper because we’re giving you a lot more nutrition for your dollar.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right.
CHERYL MITCHELL: And as time goes on it’s going to be about that, the biggest bang for your nutritional buck.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Absolutely. And someone asked me, they’re about to wean their child off of breast milk, is plant-based milk safe for babies? Is it giving them as much nutrition as a dairy milk would?
CHERYL MITCHELL: That’s a good question. At this point, the nutrition of both non-dairies and plant-based or any other, even soy milk, there’s a lot of fortification, we chose not to fortify our products, to, because we felt the consumers actually were doing a better job diversifying. They know, and you’re not going to get all the nutrition when, when we’re talking about vitamin A or D, those are very special vitamins. Some of them are natural and different, different raw materials. But usually, people are diversifying what they’re consuming to get a, a nice diversity. They’re not depending on getting all their calcium from just the, the milk. The calcium comes from a lot of different food products that they also eat. So it becomes questionable as to whether we should have fortified or not. I’m willing to give them something simpler and let them make the decision of what they would like to fortify, and what they would like to use in their diversity of foods that they’re consuming.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right, right. And you talked a bit about the need in the future to diversify protein sources, and also that at Elmhurst, you’re not wasting anything. There is often discussion around whether plant-based milks are sustainable in terms of like land, water, and energy usage. What is your perspective on that, and what does Elmhurst specifically do to combat that?
CHERYL MITCHELL: Oh yeah, thank you for that question. Basically, there’s a term I keep on using and throwing out here to the marketing folks. I said, “Look, sustainability is all about diversity and we’re talking about plant diversity.” So imagine for the last 50 years, yeah, you have milk in your refrigerator. OK? Because that was your go-to protein source. Well, what if you could have a protein source from not just almonds? And they got stuck on again, one prop. And that’s why we immediately with the Elmhurst line diversified and said, “No, we’re not just spending on almonds, we can, we can give you protein from walnuts, from oats, from hazelnuts, from cashews, from rice, and from hemp, we can, we can do it all, and that way it’s your choice, what works for you.”
And that gets into the nutrigenomic thing as well. Not everybody’s body is the same. So you might have more of a need for Omega-3s. Another person might be more in need of the beta-glucans and the fiber from the whole load. Somebody else might, like me, I like the rice for the hypoallergenic portion of it, but also that’s my go-to for if I’m definitely replacing milk in a bechamel sauce, that’s what I use. So everybody’s got something different that they’re requiring and with the Elmhurst line, you can pick and choose and put it there. And you don’t have to have just one gallon of milk. You can have four different types of milk grains, nuts, or seeds to put in your refrigerator.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Right, right. That’s actually something I tell a lot of people who think that veganism or cutting out dairy is a strange thing to do. It’s like, “Oh, you can have so much more if you, if you, if you open yourself up to this, this kind of, these products, you don’t have to.”
CHERYL MITCHELL: You’re absolutely right on that. My husband’s a prime example of this one, my daughter’s vegan and every time she comes, the first thing goes out of his mouth is, “Oh man, we’re not going to be able to eat anything.” And I said, “You haven’t learned yet that there is so much that you were eating that is vegan?” And it’s so easy to use these products and I’ve made them, so which she comes and it is holidays, virtually other than if we do have the turkey, everything else in the meal is vegan, you know? And so, and he slowly has begun to realize the significance of the fact that, you know, and the more you eat these other types of foods that, in fact, our chef here made a macaroni and cheese and entered it into a contest, and placed either second or third, the, the interesting thing of it, he didn’t tell anybody that that macaroni and cheese he did was vegan.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Wow. What did he use in it as the cheese, do you know?
CHERYL MITCHELL: He was using the Daiya. We’re still looking at, we think we can even, you know, with the products that we’re doing with the, you know, we could even make a more superior, so, stay tuned on that.
ALICIA KENNEDY: I would love to see that because I’m not a big fan of Daiya. I know it’s cheap and ubiquitous option, but it’s not my favorite taste or texture.
CHERYL MITCHELL: I think what added to the taste and flavor was the replacement of the dairy milk with the milked nuts, the Elmhurst nuts, and it really did add a very significant flavor. But that’s, that’s where, even getting into the milked peanuts, by the way, for sustainability. This is really critical. The peanuts are one of our most nutritious crops that we have and it’s an annual crop, so this is very important that we really maximize the benefit. And the protein shakes that are out there now, the peanut cream and the peanut milk, which really have all kinds of applications and cooking and making curries and sauces and whatnot, that you would never have dreamed to be using the, a peanut milk.
But, the people are changing and as I said, it’ll take a little while, but this is after all, just an evolution and even, what I keep on trying to tell people, you know, the bulk of us are flexitarian and, and even if you replace your cream that you put in your coffee with a plant-based cream because there, there are so many choices now, especially with the Elmhurst products, the cashew milk, or eventually the hemp cream or peanut cream, that’s, you know, you’re on your way. It’s funny. Just one thing at a time. Then when you start tasting a dip that normally has a cheese, but it’s actually now a, a nut cheese and you’re sitting there saying, you know, that’s pretty doggone good, this is a step. More recipes. My favorite recipe for Belgian waffles is totally vegan.
ALICIA KENNEDY: What do you use in that?
CHERYL MITCHELL: Well, I like using the oat milk in that, but for the egg white I use the aquafaba that we developed.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Oh, you developed an aquafaba there?
CHERYL MITCHELL: Yeah. Oh, that’s a fabulous thing. And so we’re getting ready to launch that as well. And we’re very excited about that because it makes it easy. Whenever you wanted egg whites, you can just kind of keep it in your cupboard, and you just open it up, pour it out and whip it up and you’ve got egg whites.
ALICIA KENNEDY: And you’ve sort of touched on this, but I believe you’re based in upstate New York, correct?
CHERYL MITCHELL: Correct. I’m just outside of Buffalo, which you know, basically being on the Niagara grid, with energy and hydropower, we couldn’t get better.
ALICIA KENNEDY: And also there are also a lot of dairy farms up in upstate New York?
CHERYL MITCHELL: Correct.
ALICIA KENNEDY: So whenever I have written about non-dairy products, I’ve gotten a bit of hate from, from dairy farmers in upstate, and, you know, they are suffering economically. There is, there’s no doubt about that. So you have touched on this, like you do see a way of for plant-based milks and for dairy milk to coexist in one person’s refrigerator, but are dairy and alternative milks in competition?
CHERYL MITCHELL: Actually, I don’t, I see it as a necessary expansion. I just gave a talk yesterday in Syracuse to the New York State Association for Food Protection. So there were a lot of dairy people there. And, and, I always worry about, here I am talking about plant-based foods, but I’m trying to educate them on the fact that these are nutritive. For years people thought that by adding anything into dairy products, that, “Oh my gosh, you’re degrading the nutritive value of the dairy.” Well, not anymore. Not with these milked grains, nuts, and seeds. You’re actually expanding the nutritive value, this is why, and people don’t even really think that way. Think about it, when you add dairy milk to oatmeal, OK, well you’ve expanded the value of the dairy milk. Which is more important, the oat or the cereal, the cereal or the dairy milk? Well, you know, they’re both equally important, and that’s where we’re going. So even in, as we look at beverages, and of course we’re a very grab-and-go a society, very busy, and people want convenience, but this is something that these milks, and that’s what we’re looking for, are doing ice creams that are not 100 percent dependent on just dairy milk, that these can be a combination without diminishing the nutritional value that the consumer is getting. And in fact what we’re doing is expanding it.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Absolutely. So, it’s often difficult to kind of discuss plant-based foods. I know you’re working from a scientific and technological and business perspective, but to talk about these foods in sustainability and food ways without also using a political framework. I don’t know, do you believe your work in this field to be political in any way?
CHERYL MITCHELL: For some reason, anything you do these days, it seems to be political. I think only because it becomes political if people aren’t willing to understand and put it in the correct framework or a, let’s call it a larger framework, instead of looking at, to where we are now, we have to look at where we’re going. I think we sometimes get too involved with the situation that we’re living in and instead of thinking about, well, what is the future, what are the realities? The reality is population is expanding. Water is diminishing in many areas of the world. And, and yet we have the ability to stabilize foods, distribute foods internationally. Some people that are, have very good crops and yields should be able to distribute them. The political comes in is, why aren’t they being distributed? Why can’t we equalize, better equalize, the distribution of our food and agricultural yields? I think that’s the bigger question at the end of the day. Nothing should be wasted. Anything that can be grown, whether it’s dairy or an agricultural crop, anything that can provide, it’s a matter of processing it, getting it stabilized and getting them at nutritional value distributed.
ALICIA KENNEDY: Thank you so much, Dr. Mitchell.
CHERYL MITCHELL: No, you’re very welcome, Alicia, and thank you.
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