Once in a while a piece of news comes along that really piques the interest; rarely do we see new categories open up despite the level of innovation in our industry. California’s Zero Acre Farms is here to “give the world an oil change” and this month raised $37 million investors including Robert Downey Jr.’s FootPrint Coalition Ventures and Richard Branson’s Virgin Group to do just that.
“We have a clear mission: to remove destructive vegetable oils from the food system”
We caught up with Jeff Nobbs, co-founder and CEO of Zero Acre Farms, to find out why and how, and what this could mean for the future of food.
Can you share the Zero Acre Farms mission and vision?
We have a clear mission: to remove destructive vegetable oils from the food system. Our dream is for everyone everywhere in the world to be able to enjoy the foods they love without destroying their health or the planet’s. Fat makes food delicious, and delicious food doesn’t have to be unhealthy or unsustainable. There’s a better way.
What does your proposed product portfolio look like?
Zero Acre Farms is brewing up a new category of healthy oils and fats, made by fermentation, not deforestation. Vegetable oils come in many forms and are in nearly everything, including most packaged foods and nearly all restaurant meals, from fast food to fine dining.
“delicious food doesn’t have to be unhealthy or unsustainable. There’s a better way”
They’re in chips, crackers, salad dressings, stir-fries, French fries, chicken nuggets, shortenings, margarines, mayonnaises, sauces, sprays, and spreads. Our platform aims to replace all of these destructive foods with healthier and more sustainable alternatives that don’t contain harmful vegetable oils.
Over recent years there has been a glut of information regarding vegetable oils, much of it contradictory. Is there anything, in particular, you would like to demystify?
While there’s still a lot to learn, there are thousands of studies that have linked vegetable oils, and the fatty acids they contain, to poor health outcomes. Like most topics in nutrition though, the waters are muddied by other studies that show a benefit from vegetable oils; however, those studies often measure meaningless biomarkers instead of actual health outcomes and/or are based on observational studies that hold little water when it comes to drawing causal conclusions.
It becomes abundantly clear to anyone who has spent time reading through nutritional scientific literature that there’s a lot more we don’t know about the body than what we do know. We don’t yet fully understand what’s happening when different species in different environments eat different foods, or why those things happen. With enough time and better science, I’m sure we’ll figure it out.
But until then, we have a chronic disease and obesity pandemic on our hands, and there are clear mechanistic data, animal studies, and human studies showing the deleterious effects of excess vegetable oil consumption. Vegetable oils are also the variable in our diet that has increased the most in the last hundred years, during which time chronic disease and obesity have gone from obscurity to commonplace, so in our fight against increasing rates of chronic illness, removing vegetable oils seems like a good place to start.
With vegetable oils accounting for up to 20% of our daily calories, bringing an end to them would be nothing short of a food revolution – do you agree?
It won’t happen overnight, but better oils and fats could trigger a positive domino effect in the entire food chain.
Environmentally-problematic and ethically-problematic factory farms, or concentrated animal feedlot operations, are in part propagated by the production of vegetable oils. After being pressed for oil, vegetable oil crops like soybean, rapeseed (canola), sunflower, cottonseed, and corn are turned into starchy leftovers, or “meals,” that make up a large bulk of factory farm animal diets [*, *].
“It won’t happen overnight, but better oils and fats could trigger a positive domino effect in the entire food chain.”
Giving up cheeseburgers or cookies are good ideas for a number of reasons, but require making a conscious decision to stop eating delicious food, for the sake of one’s health and/or the greater good. That’s hard. Really hard. It’s the reason most diets don’t work. Giving up vegetable oil is just as hard right now because it’s in everything. But in a world where better fat is the default choice, it’s not hard to give up a food that’s tasteless at best, and also devoid of nutrients, with no evolutionary precedent. If anything, better fat may actually give the taste of many foods an upgrade.
When can we expect to see your first products on the shelves?
Zero Acre Farms’ first product will launch in 2022.
From a food tech perspective, what is innovative about Zero Acre Farms?
We believe the solution to the massive problem of vegetable oils, and the lead domino in our battle against chronic disease and deforestation, lies in the original culinary art, after fire —fermentation.
Fermentation has been used for thousands of years to make bread, beer, wine, pickles, and kimchi. We’re leveraging this ancient culinary technique for a different purpose, to make healthy oils and fats that don’t destroy our environment. Oils and fats made by fermentation not only have significantly lower levels of the bad fats that have been linked to disease but also have a fraction of the environmental footprint compared to most vegetable oils.
“the lead domino in our battle against chronic disease and deforestation, lies in the original culinary art, after fire —fermentation”
Unlike vegetable oils, Zero Acre Farms’ oils and fats made by fermentation do not introduce unprecedented amounts of novel fatty acids to the human diet. Instead, we take cues from what’s worked for thousands of years. We aim to produce zero-harm oils and fats modeled from what we evolved to eat, and we aim to make them in a more sustainable way, using fermentation as our tool.
Congratulations on your recent $37 million oversubscribed Series A round. How will Zero Acre Farms utilize the fresh funds going forward?
The $37 million A round will go toward continued research and the rigors of a commercial launch.
“We want to send an important message to the world that vegetable oils are a problem, and there’s a better way, with better fat.”
The round attracted star investors such as Robert Downey Jr.’s FootPrint Coalition Ventures, Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, and Chef Dan Barber. What benefits does having such high-profile investors onboard bring?
We are partnering with chefs, climate scientists, nutritionists, MDs, PhDs, and celebrities that can influence change. We want to send an important message to the world that vegetable oils are a problem, and there’s a better way, with better fat.