Food is about innovation. Whether it’s revamping a traditional recipe, creating fusion dishes, or starting a new food trend, there is always a creative process involved in making food an enjoyable experience rather than just a daily necessity. It’s part of the reason why we go on food trips or hold gatherings at restaurants with friends and family. For Stephen Co, however, innovation also comes in the form of recreating classic Filipino comfort foods without meat.
Stephen Co is the co-founder and CEO of Worth the Health Foods, a plant-based alternative protein startup based in the Philippines. Their products are made with local sustainable ingredients and range from mungbean-based ground meat, jackfruit-based corned beef, and soy-based sausages and burger patties, all of which are uncannily similar to actual meat.
Exploring the Science Side of Business
Co has a degree in Biology from Ateneo de Manila University, a masters in Technology Management from the University of the Philippines, and another masters in Bioscience Enterprise from the University of Cambridge. Even though his experience is mostly centered around science, his Chinoy background inspired him to turn food innovation into a possible business. “I like the business side of science, so anything I do, I want to have some bioscience in it. Ever since naman, entrepreneurship seems to be the calling. From the Chinoy side, I grew up with family businesses, and [when I saw my] parents doing business, I was like ‘ok this could be a life I could pursue as well.’”
However, WTH Foods wasn’t Co’s first venture. He started out with Nipa Brew Craft Beers, but despite enjoying the creativity involved in coming up with new beer flavors, he felt like there was something missing. “We really like the back end of food manufacturing and the innovation or what new food products we can put in the market, ideally with health benefits. With beer, sabi ko, if you’re happy, you’re healthy, that’s my health benefit.”
“I’ve always been on the lookout for what’s next in the food industry, and we felt that with beer, we don’t showcase Philippine talent or creativity enough. Of course, you present your brewing skills and flavors, but most of the ingredients are imported. But I really wanted to showcase Philippine biodiversity as a biologist, this has always been my dream.”
The idea of WTH Foods came about when Co was conversing with his shareholders in 2018, and one of his investors brought up the popularity of plant-based meats in the US. Around the same time, Co also got a Fellowship from the US Department of State at Rutgers University, where they happen to be developing alternative protein products. When looking at the ingredients, Co began to speculate if these products can be replicated using plant proteins found in the Philippines, and so together with co-founders Carissa Lim and Carlo Ng, he started WTH Foods.
“We really like the science part of stuff, and trying to prove that we can commercialize science–like product-based science business, can inspire more young Filipinos to pursue more careers in science. My personal goal as well is to convince Filipinos to invest in science and take up careers in science, and I thought the best way to express science is through food,” Co states.
Unlike the US, however, the Philippines still hasn’t completely warmed up to the idea of alternative proteins yet. There isn’t exactly resistance, given the presence of more plant-based products in the supermarket these days, but it’s not a popular choice either, so Co had to utilize different marketing strategies to appeal to a larger market.
“I think very few Filipinos would type ‘plant-based’ when they search for their next meal, so that’s why we don’t really use plant-based to market, it’s more of the health aspect, the sustainability aspect that we push. Parang ‘uy, this is a healthier tapsilog or sausage silog’, and then when the customers ask ‘why are they healthier?’ ‘Oh the meat is plant-based,’ so that’s where the plant-based comes into play. We make sure that our products are as indistinguishable to meat as possible, so it would be a no-brainer to switch to plant-based meat. Then of course, taste and price–these two are still the top two factors for the success of the product, so we find ways to bring down costs. Hopefully we will achieve a good price parity with actual animal meat products within the next few years as we scale up.”
“To switch people to a healthier lifestyle, it should be as easy as possible. I’m not asking you to be 100% vegan or plant-based, but one dish at a time, one piece of your meal at a time. Kahit you’re craving for meat, but when you eat our plant-based meats, they can satisfy you, and you won’t feel na sobrang healthy naman kinain mo–healthy in a sense na hindi masarap.”
While there are other competitors in the plant-based protein market, Co says what sets WTH Foods apart is their emphasis on health. It’s more than just riding on the plant protein trend, and instead, they work closely with nutritionists to ensure that their products are as healthy as they claim. They aim to solve the nutrition problems that come with transitioning to a plant-based diet, such as lack of Vitamin B-12, and their long term goal is to make their products healthy enough to be prescribed to cancer patients or heart patients.
Despite the implication that plants are generally healthier than animal meat, there are still some doubts circulating regarding the health benefits of plant proteins, so this is what Co has to say. “When people read about [plant proteins,] they’re like ‘it’s more processed than real meat, why eat fake meat when you can just eat real meat?’ Well, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that plant-based meats are still healthier than animal meat, because they do not have the saturated fat and cholesterol that you can get from animal meat.”
“You have to read your labels when you talk about processing. At what degree? Everything is processed for a longer shelf life. When you talk about ingredients, we have as many ingredients as your ube cheese pandesal. Of course, we have to blend it to come up with the nutritional value and the texture of meat, but it’s like you’re baking. How many ingredients do you have in that chocolate cake that you also baked? For me, it’s the same thing. You process the ingredients, and you bake the ingredients.In the grand scheme of things, plant-based meats are still healthier compared to animal based products, just because of all the problems like inflammation and the promotion of cancer growth that animal based products can give you,” Co points out.
As for the future of WTH Foods, Co says their next goal is to recreate seafood using plant proteins. They also aim to be one of the significant food players in the Philippines and potentially expand across Southeast Asia as well.
“We continue to pitch to chefs, presenting our products and hoping they would use it in their menus. Hopefully, [we will] also convince politicians and LGUs to maybe have a law na may 10% plant-based law–that every restaurant should have 10% of their menu as plant-based for a healthier nation,” Co shares.
“We are [want to be] kind of bullish with the demand kasi the Philippine population will just grow, and the demand for protein globally will just grow. And there is a need to look for alternative proteins especially with the dwindling seafood supply and overfishing. There is really nothing sustainable with how we eat at the moment.”
To Aspiring Startup Owners
Co is just one among the many aspiring startup business owners who managed to make his dreams into a reality, but there are some who do not get to see results at all. This is why Co has both warnings and advice to those who plan to pursue the same path.
“I have my doubts and there’s no assurance of success, so I think it’s a very big perspective or like personal awareness. Of course, number one, you have to have a very supportive partner who will allow you to work on your dreams and a startup. It’s not a stable source of income as well. Philippines startups also have it difficult in terms of funding. It takes more work to get Philippine startups funded compared to our neighboring countries like Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore. Tapos syempre in the Philippines, the startups that are more well funded are more on the digital tech, like e-commerce, fintech, logistics, so there’s really a lack of support for other kinds of startups, so we have to find our [own] way.”
“It’s cliche, but you really have to understand why you’re doing it, because when you’re building a startup, it’s a lot of passion talaga. Where are you getting that passion? Is that passion high enough that it can trump a stable source of income? You can’t pay for groceries with passion diba? Also, you won’t see the result until maybe after 5 years of hardship before a startup stabilizes, so can you take that on?”
“[My] advice for startup founders or entrepreneurs [is: there are] so many people out there are willing to help, even for free, you just have to ask for it. Don’t be shy to ask for help. Talk to as many people as possible, of course not everyone will help, but there are a lot of very helpful people, not just in the Philippines, but abroad as well. Especially with the digital age, it’s not very difficult to meet these people, to network with them anywhere in the world, so make use of the digital tools available these days. It does make starting a startup easier. I mean, it’s still not easy, so you really have to think twice.”
“When I think about my ‘why,’ it’s because at the end of the day, it makes me ultimately happy. So I guess if you reach that point that it makes you happy and fulfilled, then go for it,” Co advises.
If you’re interested in trying the products that WTH Foods offers, you can visit their websites at wthfoods.ph and eatumani.com. They are also available on GrabFood and Foodpanda, but if you want to try them out at a physical store, you can also visit Umani Bistro at Greenhills Promenade or Nipa Brew Tap Room in Makati.