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Borealis Foods cooks up sustainable, healthy instant noodles

Oakville firm touts recyclable packaging, meatless meals and solar farm at its factory as key green initiatives

Reza Soltanzadeh, founder and CEO of Borealis Foods. (Courtesy Borealis Foods)

With its cups of its instant noodles, Borealis Foods, an Oakville, Ont.-based food technology company, hopes to bring sustainable, healthy meals to millions of people.

While instant noodles are not typically thought of as a nutritious food, conjuring up stereotypes of budget-conscious university students, Borealis Foods aims to shift the paradigm with its brands of high-protein instant ramen that balance sustenance, affordability and the environment.

“We decided to go with ramen because it’s universally consumed by millions of people, so we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel to introduce a new product to put around the world,” Borealis founder and CEO Reza Soltanzadeh told Sustainable Biz Canada about the decision to pursue instant noodles as a vehicle for nutrition.

Borealis snagged celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay as a shareholder and advisor in 2023 to collaborate on its Chef Woo brand.

While its main purpose is to promote a healthy meal under $2, Borealis also packages its food in recyclable packaging, reuses its frying oil as biofuel, and is building a solar farm to augment operations at its South Carolina factory.

By being protein-rich, the noodles can help reduce demand for meat, which is a significant contributor to climate change and land use, Soltanzadeh said.

Soltanzadeh: humanitarian doctor to food entrepreneur

Soltanzadeh, a doctor by education, got a first-hand look at the effect of malnutrition at Doctors Without Borders. “The issue that people like me had was that we were not able to treat patients because of malnutrition caused by poverty,” he recalled.

Moved by the experience, he changed course to business and investment, devoting himself to taking action against malnutrition by exploring innovative food science. The immense growth over the past decade is an encouraging trend, he said, enabling nutritious meals at a reasonable cost.

He founded Borealis in 2019, assembling a team that could develop a cup of instant noodles based on high-protein dough that would be nutritious, shelf-stable, affordable and mass manufactured.

Products are sold on Amazon and in Canada, the U.S. (across 20,000 grocery stores) and Mexico, with plans to enter the French and German markets. Its factory in South Carolina can manufacture 600 million meals per year.

The factory is where the company can also showcase its commitment to sustainability, where it plans to develop the solar farm.

Sustainable production and food

Soltanzadeh’s aspiration is to see Borealis powered entirely by solar energy. To see this through, the company plans to build a solar power plant by its South Carolina factory to provide approximately 1,200 megawatts of energy per year.

During the daytime, it will cover 80 to 88 per cent of the factory’s power needs while also reducing power costs, Soltanzadeh said. It is expected to be operating by the end of 2024.

But the greatest impact comes from the food itself, the CEO argues. By providing a cup of noodles based on grains such as yellow peas and a protein-rich strain of wheat, it offsets the need for animal-based protein, he said.

A third of manmade greenhouse gas emissions originate from food, with a proportionately high amount from meat due to land use, methane emissions from cattle and the grain to feed the animals. Plant-based diets have considerably less burden on the environment by comparison, the UN states.

A study from the University of Michigan that compared the 20 grams of protein from a cup of Chef Woo to the equivalent amount of protein from beef, pork, chicken and a plant-based burger found Chef Woo was only bested by chicken in greenhouse gas emissions. Compared to beef, the biggest polluter, Chef Woo had 13 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions. The instant noodles also performed well on water and land use.

The noodles are fried using sunflower oil to eliminate saturated fats, and the oil is turned into biofuels. Such an initiative excludes the popular choice of palm oil, which has been implicated in deforestation.

Packaging is based on recyclable paper, unlike the typical Styrofoam.

Borealis engages with its suppliers to address sustainability, including biodegradable cups and optimal growing of crops using technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Untangling health, costs, taste and environment

Taking the healthy, sustainable road did not come without its barriers, Soltanzadeh said. People thought Borealis was “nuts” to use sunflower oil over palm oil, for example, and costs remain a challenge.

“The more sustainable you want to go, the more expensive it becomes. When you go organic the cost is a problem. When you’re trying to go biodegradable or recycled cups, that adds cost.”

Consumers say they care about sustainability, he said, but do not want to pay a green premium.

In response, Borealis had to cut its profit margin, and Ramsay will be advising the company on balancing flavour and healthiness for the Chef Woo brand. But its shareholders are keeping the faith and the younger generations such as Gen Z are more committed to sustainability, Soltanzadeh said.

The next goals for Borealis are to bring a new set of products that reflect the countries where they will be sold.

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