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Meet the man who popularised the Bambara groundnut found in WhatIF plant-based instant foods

Jasmine Alimin
Jasmine Alimin • 7 min read
Meet the man who popularised the Bambara groundnut found in WhatIF plant-based instant foods
The bambara groundnut in WhatIF convenience foods is helping to lower environmental impact
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As someone with two decades working for some of the biggest names in the agriculture and food industry, Founder and CEO of WhatIF Foods Christoph Langwallner, has plenty to say about large-scale food manufacturing and the negative health impact it has on the consumer.

“The five of us, experienced scientists and executives, were creating food with the bottom line as the top priority. This meant adding artificial additives for more visual stimulation or adding a bit more flavour enhancers to make the food just a little bit more addicting. But they are absolutely rubbish in terms of nutrition. The ‘food’ we were producing wasn’t really food,” reveals the Austria-born, Singapore-based entrepreneur.

Statistically, the food industry was producing enough calories for 10 billion people yet every six seconds, we lose forests the size of a football field. Seven people out of ten suffer from what they eat and eating too much kills three times more people than famine.

This insane reality is what Langwallner coins a “Nutritional Paradox” and the basis for a greater mission: For him to bring people from all walks of life to resolve the quadruple burden of hunger, obesity, micronutrient deficiencies and destruction of our planet caused by the current food system.

“Since industrialisation began, the agri-food industry has been designed to achieve the highest productivity. Today, it manufactures empty calories, leaves empty land behind, and empties the livelihoods of communities,” he says.

The World Resources Institute (WRI) forecasts that to feed 9.8 billion people by 2050, food production must increase by 56%, involving an additional 68% more animal-based foods. The world’s arable land has decreased by 33% in the last 40 years, and corporations have compensated by converting acres of forests into agricultural land. This means that the industry will have to react by either destroying more forests or increasing food prices.

In August 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a “code red for humanity report” stating “unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2.0°C will be beyond reach”.

These red flags left him asking, what if sustainability is no longer enough? “I think it is time to stop believing that doing the same thing a bit greener and a little more transparent is going to change the world.”

“For us, it is no longer about sustaining, it’s about regenerating. In order to change our food system for the better, we must make food that replenishes us with good nutrients, use ingredients grown with regenerative practices, and reconnect with the people who grow our food,” says Langwallner.

Together with his co-founders, Langwallner discovered a crop that would change the narrative; a groundnut that grows in abundance, capable of nourishing the land and our bodies too. High in protein and fibre, low in saturated fats, the Bambara groundnut (lovingly called the BamNut) is the magic ingredient in WhatIf Foods’ tasty and healthy line of convenience products which include highly nutritious soups, shakes, instant noodles and milk.

Launched in 2020 by Singapore company NamZ, WhatIF foods is here to champion planet-based consumption and regenerative agriculture. At the helm is Langwallner, who is on a mission to re-engineer and reimagine the food industry and also drive towards a zero-waste process from the farms to service delivery.

Here, he shares how the Bambara groundnut is key to saving the environment, and the need to move beyond plant-based and toward a planet-based lifestyle.

Tell us more about the Bambara groundnut.
WhatIF Foods currently has seven products that are a recreation of familiar foods namely instant noodles, soups, shakes and milk, all made from the Bambara groundnut, which is nutritionally dense, climate-resilient, and resource-efficient.

This hardy groundnut native to West Africa requires minimal water and resources to survive. A crop that thrives in tough conditions and fixes nitrogen back into the soil, thereby replenishing it, the Bambara groundnut is a legume that looks a bit like a round peanut. Additionally, it can grow in poor soil conditions and an arid climate and does not need fertilisers or pesticides to grow.

More importantly, Bambara groundnuts deliver balanced macro and micro-nutrients, including essential amino acids, two types of essential fatty acids, up to seven minerals, and a few B-vitamins.

Isn’t cooking a meal from scratch better than consuming instant foods?
There is nothing better than eating fresh fruits and vegetables. The only problem is, it’s not the easiest thing to ensure that we only eat fresh foods at every meal. And so, our products are for those busy individuals, say, struggling to fit in a lunch meal in between their Zoom calls but still would like to ensure good nutrition. You can add as many ingredients into it for a quick and easy meal that satisfies your tummy, your need to replenish and your desire to bring a positive impact on the world.

WhatIF Foods hopes to bridge the gap between accessibility and convenient food that is good for the environment. Our instant noodles are high in protein and are not deep-fried, contrary to the status quo. WhatIF Foods also commits to not using any palm oil in its products and does not add MSG or artificial colouring in its noodles.

How does the new BamNut Milk stack up against regular milk?
BamNut milk delivers all proteins needed by your body to stay fit and is lactose-free and plant-based. BamNut Milk is suitable for almost any diet because it has no added sugar yet has a thick and creamy mouthfeel which our consumers love.

BamNut Milk delivers 7g of protein per serving, almost as much as cow’s milk. Beneficially, it contains 31% less fat than cow’s milk, and a regular glass of BamNut Milk has at least half of the recommended daily requirements for calcium, Vitamin D2, and Vitamin B12.

On the BamNut Milk’s environmental impact: to offer some perspective, we would require 628L of water to produce 1L of cow’s milk but would only require 14L of water to produce 1L of BamNut Milk. Not only so, the climate footprint of BamNut Milk is 0.1 kg CO2e per cup, compared to 0.48 for a cup of cow’s milk.

Is eating plant-based really better?
There are many reasons why a plant-based diet is better for us and the planet. However, the key to a healthy and environmentally-friendly diet is in the diversity of the food we eat. There exist 300,000 species fit for human consumption. Yet, remarkably, only three crops – maize, rice, and wheat — make up more than half of the calories and proteins that we derive from plants. This consolidation of a few species means an (increasing) lack of diversity in our food (as well as in our soil). We need to diversify what we sow and eat so that our diets are healthier for both us and the planet.

That is, we need to go beyond just being plant-based, and move towards planet-based. Now that we have made the first step to acknowledge that plant-based diets are better because plants are simply better energy conversion biological machines, we need to start questioning how the ingredients for our plant-based diets are grown as well.

How receptive are people to changing the way they eat?
Consumers today are more educated about making sustainable food choices, and the demand for such products is increasing. This increase in interest has in turn led to more brands making a conscious effort to take responsibility in ensuring that the generations in the future have access to good food sources.

We are happy to see more and more people questioning their simple decisions of what to eat, and happy that we are having conversations on what is the healthiest or most sustainable diet to have. We have seen our community speak up more about the source of their food, how their food choices are part of a larger system, and how as consumers, they get to decide how to shape that system. We believe these conversations are widespread because we all have inherent needs to replenish ourselves and restore our planet.

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