Noam Sharon was a corporate and securities lawyer in Israel before he began working on the idea that would become CHKP Foods, a company that makes OU kosher pareve yogurt from chickpeas. It wasn’t as radical a move as it may sound, given that hummus was an essential part of his diet growing up in the Middle East: chickpeas were practically a member of the family.
The first couple years of research and development were spent in a lab, focusing on dairy alternatives — an ideal use for this versatile legume, Sharon says. “Other legumes can be used for yogurt but some have acute taste issues that are a huge challenge to resolve, some are allergens, and many are not sustainably grown. Chickpeas are the perfect legume, with a naturally slightly sweet taste that you can turn in any direction.” In addition, chickpeas are high in protein and low in fat. “We had a good stable product after about two years, but developing is never done. We’re still working on more efficient methods of production and more accurate flavors.”
Ramping up distribution
Currently, CHKP yogurt, which has the taste and creamy texture of Greek yogurt, is available in plain, strawberry, blueberry and vanilla, in about 170 stores in and around New York City, with plans to be in 500 by the end of 2022. There’ll be two more flavors this year too. In the pipeline for the first half of 2023 are cream cheese and sweet puddings.
The heart of the manufacturing process in making plant-based yogurt was working out the fermentation, with live, active cultures that give the yogurt its tanginess. There are many additional processes, Sharon notes, such as pasteurization to make it clean and healthy, and filling the yogurt cups.
He talks about the “playfulness” in his company’s strategies. “It’s a game,” he says, “a game about creating food that people will love to eat. I think few things are more satisfying professionally than doing that.”
His evolution from lawyer to food maven came into focus with the Covid pandemic. “So many people found new things, new content, and new meanings in this new, unexplored reality,” he says. Part of that transition has been a greater emphasis on plant-based foods — a movement that benefits CHKP Foods and its mission to make these foods available and accessible.
Fighting climate change with plants
Plant-based foods are often considered as a way that can help mitigate our climate crisis, as producing them takes a fraction of the resources of animal-based foods. Chickpeas are ideal in many ways for that goal. They’re extraordinarily resilient, need little to no pesticides or herbicides, and even create their own fertilizer — that is, each generation serves as fertilizer for the next.
“My dream is that plant-based foods will go on expanding and become the first or default choice of more and more people,” Sharon says. “For that to happen we’ll have to offer excellent taste and texture, as well as price parity. The main thing that will help will be creating technologies and economical ways to reach this parity.
“Ideally,” he continues, ‘consumers will become agnostic, meaning that they will buy a plant-based product such as yogurt, chocolate or a hamburger not because they’re plant-based but because they’re tasty. That point of indifference will be reached when taste, texture and price will be similar or even better.”