Sarah Steinbrunner does not have any food allergies. But she’s heard the heartbreaking and motivating stories of those affected by what she calls the “allergy epidemic.”
That’s why in the spring of 2018, Steinbrunner created Yippea Butter, an allergen-free alternative to peanut butter made from chickpeas.
“We met with a family whose daughter had a nut allergy — she passed away three months into college after exposure,” said Steinbrunner, who graduated from Ohio State in 2019 with a degree in food science. “We had one mom who reached out to us, she was crying when she found our product because her son has a peanut allergy and is so limited in what he can eat.
“We’ve heard from a lot of moms expressing how grateful they are for companies like ours who are doing our part to provide products for kids who can’t eat a lot of what is on the market. It’s why we do what we do.”
Often, that means a lot of late nights. Steinbrunner and her Banzo Foods business partner, boyfriend Taylor Crooks — both college students until recently — balanced school, internships and late nights making the Yippea Butter by hand for farmer’s markets and Amazon sales.
But the startup tandem are tapping into a market growing from an alarming need.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 32 million Americans have food allergies, including 5.6 million children. Food allergies in children increased by 50 percent from 1997 to 2011.
“It’s really unfortunate how much the food allergies are growing,” Steinbrunner said. “It’s still a huge problem and a lot of the allergen-free alternatives available lack flavor or contain questionable ingredients. So it’s hard for people with food allergies to feel like they’re included in anything centered around food.
“We want to have a wide array of products available to allergen-free people that are safe but taste good enough for someone who doesn’t have any food allergies.”
I wanted to take a product that’s so staple and classic in American diets like peanut butter and Nutella and make it accessible to people in the allergen-free community. (Banzo Foods partner Taylor Crooks) tasted it and he was like, you have to take this to market. We never looked back.
It’s free of the big eight food allergens: peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, dairy, soy, wheat, shellfish and milk. It’s also free of the top 14, which is how the European Union classifies it. That list includes mustard, sulfites, sesame, celery, lupins and mollusks.
It was definitely difficult to design because you want to make a product taste indulgent and have the texture and functionality of typical products. But it was fun for me because of my background in food science.
Chickpeas are legumes like peanuts; they’re in the same family. But chickpeas don’t have that protein found in nuts that causes severe allergy reactions. So we found a way to manufacture the chickpea to taste close to the flavor of peanut butter. The current allergen-free alternative is sunflower seed butter, which has a distinct flavor and aroma that is very different from peanut butter.
We use only healthy and sustainable oils. Most of the consumer products and spreads on the market contain palm oil, but it’s the leading cause of deforestation so we use coconut oil and safflower oil.
It’s a lot more difficult because palm oil is that perfect texture and consistency you want for a spreadable product. That was our biggest challenge in the formulation phase, utilizing these healthy and sustainable oils in a way that made a product like we have.
Otherwise it’s salt and sweetener (cocoa). It’s pretty simple. We wanted to make sure we have a short ingredient list. We don’t use any preservatives or artificial flavors or anything like that.
We spent months doing the formulation. One of the challenges was that for some reason it was oxidizing. We couldn’t figure that out. It was a huge problem.
Then the texture and the flavor, people would taste it and say, this tastes like beans and that was obviously not what we wanted. We want a great-tasting product.
The process to make it is unconventional, so it still needs to be made by hand; once we can get to scale, it will be better, but it’s still pretty tedious. We don’t use common methods you see in the industry for something like peanut butter. Chickpea butters aren’t out there; there’s not really a standard process to follow so every jar is hand-filled.
We have to keep some things secret. We’re realizing a lot of people see this as an opportunity to copy us. It’s unfortunate. It’s been another challenge we hadn’t expected.
A lot of sweat and heart went into the formulation. But I’m proud of what we have now.