KANSAS CITY — Executives at Kellogg Co. and Unilever are calling on startups to help tackle food industry issues. The companies partnered with the organizers of the Future Food-Tech Summit to launch the Innovation Challenge, which will culminate in a pitch at the live-streamed virtual event on March 11-12.

Kellogg, Battle Creek, Mich., is seeking new microbiome-based innovation for gut wellness. Solutions may include new plant fibers, value-added fibers from waste streams, prebiotics, postbiotics, fermented ingredients and new non-spore food-stable probiotics.

London-based Unilever is looking for ingredients and processing technologies to improve taste, texture, sustainability and affordability of plant-based meat and dairy alternatives. The goal aligns with the company’s recently announced target to achieve €1 billion in annual sales of plant-based meat and dairy alternatives within the next five to seven years.

Applications for the Innovation Challenge will be accepted at futurefoodtechsf.com/innovation-challenge-2021/ through Feb. 5. Details of the challenge were discussed during a Jan. 19 webinar.

D’Anne Hayman, PhD, vice president of global innovation and nutrition at Kellogg, said the gut microbiome is the future of nutrition. She cited growing evidence supporting the impact of food and beverage on the composition and diversity of microorganisms in the human body.

“Kellogg has a long history of supporting gut wellness through fiber,” Dr. Hayman said.

Fiber intake is linked to reduced risk for chronic disease, and yet Kellogg estimated 90% of consumers are falling short on fiber goals.

“The inadequate intakes have even been called a public health concern,” Dr. Hayman said.

Kellogg is testing MWell, a direct-to-consumer brand focused on digestive wellness. MWell is currently only available in the United Kingdom. The core product offering is MWell Microbiome Powder containing oat fiber, prebiotic chicory root fiber and pea fiber that may be added to hot or cold foods such as smoothies, soups and baked foods.

“Consumers are really looking for simple solutions to support their health,” Dr. Hayman said. “They want to improve gut health, but they don’t always know how to do it… M Well is one of the ways we’re going to bring a new and differentiated offering.”

André Pots, PhD, research and development director for foods research at Unilever, discussed the company’s focus on plant-based alternatives.

The company has partnered with Algenuity, a UK-based company developing technology to extract protein from algae, which may be used in applications such as a vegan mayonnaise or meat alternatives, Dr. Pots said.

Unilever also is pushing for crop diversity through its Future 50 Foods initiative.

“Today most of our vegetable protein sources are coming from soy, pea and wheat,” Dr. Pots said. “We need to extend and expand our portfolio of products we’re using.”

He pointed to oats, lentils, fava beans, chickpeas and potato as promising sources of plant-based protein.

“We’re looking at functionality, to have a positive impact on the products we’re making in terms of binding or juiciness or bite or texture, but also from a nutritional perspective,” he said. “Also very important is the absence of off flavors and beany notes associated with pea or soy.”

Unilever also is seeking better, more efficient processes for plant-based meat alternatives. Dr. Pots acknowledged solutions in biotechnology, including cellular agriculture and precision fermentation, as options on the horizon.

The company wants to add more non-dairy varieties to its frozen desserts portfolio, which includes brands such as Ben & Jerry’s and Magnum. Overcoming taste and functional challenges is the biggest hurdle, Dr. Pots said.

“We need to find solutions that don’t have the beany notes… or textural defects like graininess or sandiness,” Dr. Pots said.