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  • We all need protein to live and stay healthy. However, many protein sources are becoming an increasingly expensive way to meet our needs – both economically and environmentally. Innovators are looking for new food products that can help change the food production system to help solve environmental impacts created by our existing food production systems.

    Rights: Showdown Productions

    Leaft Foods

    New Zealand company Leaft Foods has developed technology to extract rubisco, a high-value protein found in leafy greens.

    Select here to view video transcript, questions for discussion and copyright information

    Protein-based food

    Protein is one of three macronutrients humans need for maintaining body functions and carrying out the activities of daily life. Developing new sustainable protein sources is vital to feed the growing world population, while reducing food production impacts on the environment.

    Developing new protein sources

    Leaft Food founders John Penno and Maury Leyland Penno could see the growing global demand from consumers for food with low environmental impacts. Coming from a dairy farming background, they also wanted to find ways to help farmers to shrink their environmental impact. Plant-based protein alternatives have been a growing market globally but there are limited alternatives to animal protein in New Zealand.

    Rights: Jerome Warburton

    Leaft co-founders

    Leaft was founded by Maury Leyland Penno and John Penno.

    The innovative couple became interested in ribulose bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase (rubisco). Rubisco is a protein in green leaves that plays a role in photosynthesis. Spinach, kale and alfalfa sprouts are all examples of leafy greens with rubisco.

    Herbivores are adapted to get this protein from plants, but humans don’t have the digestive system to fully access the protein and would need to consume impossible amounts of plant matter to extract it in any useful quantity.

    Leaft Foods was set up to commercialise the extraction of rubisco from leafy greens and to create a high-value protein product with a lighter environmental footprint than either animal or grain-based proteins.

    Leaft’s rubisco powder

    The team at Leaft Foods have developed a method to extract rubisco from crops (primarily lucerne) to produce a protein powder product. The protein is extracted from the leaves of the crop. As a result of the extraction technology, they have also developed a co-product – a protein-optimised animal feed similar to chopped silage.

    Rights: Jerome Warburton

    Lucerne crop

    Lucerne (Medicago sativa) growing in Canterbury. Leaft is working with a variety of leafy green crops, including lucerne, to develop its rubisco protein powder.

    The powder is neutral tasting, soluble and highly digestible, contains no known allergens and is a complete protein with an amino acid profile like beef but with a lower carbon footprint.

    The plant protein powder is a versatile food ingredient that can be blended into a range of formulations. Leaft has conducted various trials to understand how the powder can be used in food products.

    An early proof of concept was – appropriately for a New Zealand company – an eggless pavlova.

    Whether you bake it, put it in a drink or a dessert, it performs as well as or, in some cases, better than dairy.

    Ross Milne, Leaft CEO

    Food manufacturing

    The excitement over the performance of the plant protein powder has changed the approach at Leaft. From an initial idea to onsell it as a high-value product to food manufacturers, Leaft is now working to undertake food manufacture for the company and growers to benefit from the product.

    Rights: Showdown Productions

    A pavlova with no eggs!

    A pavlova was made with Leaft’s rubisco plant protein powder instead of eggs.

    The pudding was one of the first proof of concept food products the team trialled with the protein powder.

    In 2022, Leaft set up a small commercial-grade facility based at FoodSouth to grow its manufacturing capabilities. This work includes scaling up the extraction of the protein and further research into the development of different food products.

    Leaft was boosted by significant investment from a number of players, including Ngāi Tahu Holdings, NBA talent Steven Adams, ACC (via the Climate Change Impact Fund) and US-based Khosla Ventures (also an early investor in Rocket Lab). The investment has aided the scale-up to extract the protein, expand research and development into food products and grow manufacturing capacity ahead of a market launch.

    As well as the protein powder and food product development, Leaft has begun to identify international pathways for marketing the powder and done further work to quantify the modelling, which is important for farmers to have confidence in the system.

    Working with farm systems

    The Leaft team are growing the lucerne crops and working through how the crop and its silage co-product fit into an existing farm system as well as the functional impacts of the feed on animal production.

    They see significant potential benefits that could produce real opportunities for farmers. From an environmental viewpoint, farmers could choose to grow a lucerne crop on vulnerable land (for example, near a water body) as it is not grazed but only harvested.

    The modelling suggests that producing rubisco protein directly from leafy crops has a carbon footprint 17 times lower per hectare than conventional dairy protein from dairy farming. It also suggests that the protein-optimised animal feed/silage co-product will reduce nitrogen in waterways and release of nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.

    The Leaft system provides farmers with an alternative income stream from land they presently use to graze animals. This means farmers can reduce stock without loss of income, which is the main driver behind the system’s lower greenhouse gas footprint claim.

    Related content

    We all eat food because it provides the fundamental types of materials required to keep our bodies functioning. Understand food function and structure in this introduction article.

    Read the teacher resource Proteins, which provides information about proteins, specifically amino acids, peptide bond, peptides and proteins, and types of proteins.

    Understand key terms used when learning about food function and structure.

    The Leaft Food production of rubisco results in a silage byproduct that can be used to feed farm animals. Learn about silage in What is silage?

    Unlike many animals, humans cannot eat the volumes of green leafy food required for their protein needs, further we don’t have the ability to break down many green leafy foods. Learn more about how cows are able to extract the nutrients they need from a leafy diet in the interactive Ruminant digestion.

    Dairy farming and climate change – a context for learning explores the environmental impacts of dairy farming and research to lessen the impacts.

    Breeding low-methane sheep looks at efforts to mitigate climate change impacts for sheep farmers.

    Look at some of the challenges and opportunities Aotearoa New Zealand faces as a country reliant on the primary industries in The primary sector and climate change.

    Learn about other research projects to develop new methods for enriching existing food products and developing new ones:

    What’s so special about insects has a section on the growing interest in insects as a food source for humans.

    Look at other work to grow more sustainable foods in Aotearoa in the article Growing spirulina.

    Activity idea

    In the activity Make a snack bar, students develop their knowledge of food and product development while understanding that energy from food components should match energy needs.

    Useful links

    Read more about rubisco on the Leaft website.

    FoodSouth is one of five food and drink production facilities operated by the New Zealand Food Innovation Network.


    The resource is adapted from the article by Rural Delivery, a television programme that looks at excellence and innovation within the primary industries in New Zealand. The Science Learning Hub acknowledges Showdown Productions for the use of this article and the accompanying video clip.

      Published 29 May 2024 Referencing Hub articles
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