The humble yellow split pea has come a long way. The key ingredient in pea soup, something of a tradition in Swedish homes on Thursdays since Catholic times, this week it goes on sale in a vegan milk drink in Whole Foods, Southern California, in the distinctive striped packaging of Swedish startup Sproud.
In just three years, the Swedish start up Sproud has built up a growing following in its home market in Sweden and 17 other countries, including the U.K., with Waitrose, Amazon and Ocado, and now with the Whole Foods listing right to the heart of the the sunshine state.
The driving force behind Sproud is founder and CEO Maria Tegman. A farmer’s daughter from Ystad, which features in Henning Mankell’s Wallander series, Tegman has always known a thing or two about split peas. “You harvest them, dry them – that’s what turns green peas yellow – and extract the protein, fibres and starch,” she says. “You don’t need much water, and growing peas enriches the soil. It’s one of the farmer’s favourites.”
Sproud’s milks contain double the amount of protein found in oat milks, and five times more protein than that found in almond milk. They also contain very little sugar, unusual in plant-based milks. Even the chocolate version contains only 5% sugar and the unsweetened, none. Yet one thing matters more than anything else, says Tegman. “Taste is everything.”
And she should know. Tegman spent over 15 years in senior positions at Nordic food giant Orkla, whose brands include Felix, Kalle’s and Abba, where she worked on several new products. In 2010, she launched the granola brand Paulúns, one of the best-selling health food lines in the Nordics. “Orkla was a great experience,” she says. “We had a lot of failures, and a lot of successes.”
At Orkla, Tegman challenged the prevailing company and industry view that plant-based and sugar-free foods would be a short-lived fad. “I saw a huge demand for plant-based foods and a big trend towards veganism, especially from younger customers,” Tegman recalls. “We all agreed on the same vision of the future, but it was taking too long.”
Becoming impatient, in 2016, she approached Nicklas Jungberg, a private investor in Southern Sweden, who had recently acquired his own food distribution network.
He sent Tegman out to create a plant-based product that could be sold online directly to consumers as well as to shops. The following year, she launched Sproud with Jungberg and co-founder Christopher Robertson.
Although they started with a blank piece of paper, it was soon clear the opportunity lay in a vegan milk drink that tasted good.
“We knew we could make a fantastic milk from peas, as rich in protein as cow’s milk, but with more nutrients and less sugar than any other plant-based milk,” recalls Tegman. “Oats weren’t rich enough in protein, and soya is not the answer the planet needs. We knew there had to be something else.”
Peas are a climate-friendly crop to produce: as they grow, nitrogen is extracted from the air to the roots, which eliminates the need for fertilisers. This, and the move away from dairy products for environmental reasons, underpins the rapidly expanding plant-based milk drink market. Valued at just over $16,130.9mn in 2019, by 2025, it is expected to reach $41,061 mn, a forecasted compound annual growth rate of 16.7%.
Tegman, a keen foodie who once wanted to be a chef, was adamant that Sproud’s milks had to taste like dairy milk and have the right texture. The only problem was how to get rid of the pea taste.
Then a new variant of pea emerged. This, mixed with oils and syrups and fortified to provide vitamins A, B2, B12 and D, provided exactly the kind of dairy taste Tegman was after – and lasts in its carton for a year at room temperature.
Pea protein is big business. In 2019, the global pea protein market was worth $32m (£26.2m), according to Allied Market Research. By 2025, it is expected to be worth $176m (£144m). Pizza Hut, Beyond Burger and MacDonald’s have use it in their vegan meals. So does Statoil, the Norwegian oil and gas giant, says Tegman.
Vegan chef and writer Gaz Oakley is big a fan of Sproud. “Of all the non-dairy milks I have tried, Sproud’s is the most like dairy milk. It works well in all my recipes, which makes it easy to veganise dishes I once made with cows’ milk,” he says.
Sproud currently has three milks on the market – unsweetened, chocolate and barista. Deeply sceptical about putting pea milk with my espresso, the barista one has won me over. It froths better than dairy milk, keeps the foam, and I prefer the taste.
Tegman, who is based in Malmö, hasn’t yet been able to use Swedish-grown peas – the majority of Sproud’s peas come from France – but she hopes to. The aim is to grow peas locally near all Sproud’s main markets. From later this year, Canadian peas will be used in all Sproud products sold in North America.
Earlier this year, Sproud raised £4.8mn from London-based investor VBGC Partners. The plant-based milk market is fiercely competitive with newcomers emerging each year to challenge existing brands, not to mention another Swedish company, Oatly, which dominates the oat milk market. Can Sproud compete against such megaliths?
“Winning against oat milks is more about nutrition, sugar, and protein, and taste,” Tegman replies. Besides, she explains, she set up Sproud to do something about climate change. As she argues, “The greatest thing any of us can do for the planet is to help change planting patterns, in favour of crops which take less out of the soil, and to use plant-based produce rather than dairy whenever possible.”