Sometimes, the biggest innovation breakthroughs come from unexpected places.
Today I want to show you a recent example, where a group on Facebook found a solution to a problem which the food industry has spent billions trying to solve. It’s called aquafaba.
In the world of innovation, such breakthroughs by people outside of the industry are known as outsider thinking, from people who bring a different perspective to approaching the challenge.
For decades, there has been a growing demand for vegetarian, vegan and other meat-free foods, as people become more conscious of their health and the impact which meat farming has on the environment. And while there has apparently been a lot of progress in refining recipes for creating high-protein foods which don’t taste like soggy cardboard, there has always been the issue with something called “mouth feel“.
This refers to the sensation of how food sticks together and breaks apart while it’s being bitten into and chewed, and relates to how the particles of food are bound together. Naturally occurring foods like a chunk of meat or a whole vegetable will naturally have molecules bound together, creating a mouth feel which we have evolved to feel natural, normal and pleasant. But when we create a recipe which requires separate molecules to be locked together, such as in baking or creating a burger from ground beef, we need to add a binding agent to create the bonds which don’t occur naturally. And humans found out centuries ago that eggs, especially egg white, form a natural-feeling bind when mixed into ingredients and cooked.
However, this has always been a problem for vegans, who refuse to eat eggs. So in order to create vegan-friendly recipes, food scientists have spent years trying to find other plant-based binding agents to help improve the mouth feel of vegan recipes. There has been some progress with pea-protein extracts, cornstarch, guar gum and xantham gum, but nothing that can replace the original egg.
And then in 2014, a Facebook group discussing vegan recipes was alerted to someone’s experiment with the water from a can of chickpeas.
The miracle of aquafaba
According to the original article on WIRED, it was 2014 when group member Goose Wohlt came across a previous post from Joël Roessel who wrote about using liquid from various canned beans to make meringues on his French blog. Wohlt began experimenting and found that the juice from a can of chickpeas would actually whip up into a perfect substitute for meringue without the need for additional agents like starches or gums.
Apparently, the water in the can dissolves a combination of proteins and starches from the chickpeas. When thes are then whipped for a few minutes, these starch and protein molecules begin to combine into larger molecules which provide structure and act as a binding agent. All from a yellowish liquid which most chefs previously poured down the drain.
This whipped up chickpea juice is called aquafaba, which literally translates as “bean water”.
He published his findings in the group, and they went viral, with people across the world trying it out and experimenting with other recipes, like making aquafaba-based mayonnaise. More than any other vegan egg substitute, it apparently has one majoy advantage: foods made with it taste significantly better.
Here is a video showing the process:
This new egg-substitute is now slowly getting into mainstream, with Whole Foods beginning orders for some aquafaba-based products.
It all goes to show the power of outsider thinking.
So if you have an innovation challenge you’re struggling with, try reading about what small “hacker” groups are trying in related industries. Often, having thousands of people all trying their own experiments will lead to insights which your internal team of R&D experts would never have thought of trying.
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