“Not all meal replacement shakes are created equal,” said Levana Kirschenbaum, CEO and founder at Levana Nourishments.
“Most of them target weight loss or sport nutrition and are not designed to close a dietary gap or provide the whole-meal nutritional value that many consumers desperately need.”
Kirschenbaum is perhaps best known for pioneering gourmet kosher dining as chef and co-owner at the Levana restaurant, which operated for three decades on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Filling the nutritional gap
Kirschenbaum's meal replacement journey started as a personal mission to feed her husband through cancer and pain management treatments. These left him without an appetite and severely malnourished.
Put off by the high sugar content and non-nutritive ingredients such as those used as protein powder carriers in many commercial and institutional meal replacements on the market, she focused in on all-natural functional foods for her own powdered mix.
“Consumers are actively seeking for clean-label meal replacements that contain all the essential nutrients they need in one meal,” Kirschenbaum told NutraIngredients-USA, noting that benefits go well beyond the philosophical “eat clean” dictum.
“My formula is designed to restore one’s nutritional balance and subsequent wellbeing while keeping one regular – the holy grail for people who cannot consume ordinary food and for people on poor diets.”
As testament, she adds that her meal replacements continue to provide the lion’s share of her husband’s nutrition needs.
Refining the formula
To refine her formula, Kirschenbaum worked with Joe Regenstein, professor emeritus of food science at Cornell University, supplemented by extensive R&D at the Pure Functional Foods Plant in upstate New York.
“The ingredients were scrupulously selected as pure, wholesome ingredients naturally charged with these desired properties,” said Regenstein.
“They work together synergistically to restore a person’s nutritional equilibrium, precisely in line with Levana’s vision.”
The short list of gently dehydrated and finely ground plant-based whole foods includes hemp, chia, flax, pumpkin, sunflower seeds and avocado for “maximum natural nutrition in a minimum volume”.
Production challenges included finding a way to make an ultra-fine grind suitable for both conventional feeding and parenteral (intravenous) nutrition. The solution was to separate the fat from the protein in the main ingredients, naturally process it into powder using a tapioca carrier and then reintroduce it into the formulation matrix.
“These healthful fats are a highly valuable nutrient, providing concentrated calories and adding suspension and viscosity while being neutral in flavor,” Kirschenbaum explained.
Certified by Laboratory Corporation of America (Labcorp) and evaluated through dietitian-controlled trial, the formula contains all the calories, protein, fat, fiber, minerals, vitamins and micronutrients mandated for a full-nutrition meal.
The beta path to market
With beta product prepped, Levana Nourishments tested a single production run on Amazon in 2017. Kirschenbaum notes that despite limited resources, the response by consumers of all ages and economic backgrounds was very encouraging.
“It served as a clear indication to me and everyone who worked with me during that period that there is a dire need for this product; that the idea of offering the public a naturally delicious and highly nutritious meal replacement alternative is long overdue,” she said.
The product line is sugar-free, gluten-free, nut-free and soy-free, as well as non-GMO, NFC-certified natural and certified kosher. It is available in vanilla bean, mixed berry and cocoa-coffee flavors with a savory portfolio launch expected in 2023.
“My ambition, my dream, is to partner up with functional foods and dietary supplement companies that will recognize the value of what I have built and how many people it can help, that will appreciate the fact that every aspect of the line has been considered and fully addressed and developed,” Kirschenbaum said.