"We started selling it this year. The feedback has been great," said Justin Jacob, owner of the Bridge Drive-In, famous since 1957 for its soft-serve ice cream.
"Last week, we sold out of the non-dairy mix. … It's definitely a higher volume than our old non-dairy product that we were offering before."
The ingredients in traditional ice cream, which include cream, butterfat, milk and eggs, make it a no-go for vegans and those with lactose intolerance or dairy allergies.
Lupin soft serve gives them a tasty alternative, says Jacob.
"We can now still kind of mimic exactly a banana split or whatever you're used to getting," he said. "You can still kind of keep your dietary restriction but substitute in all non-dairy products."
A rich, creamy texture
Bridge Drive-In, or BDI as it's known to locals, has for years offered a vegan option made from a U.S.-sourced coconut powder, but Jacob didn't like the taste or the texture.
Demand for dairy alternatives has been growing, so several years ago, he partnered with John Thoroski at the University of Manitoba's Dairy Science Pilot Plant, which operates as both a classroom for agriculture students and a development lab for commercial clients.
They tried making soft serve with peas, beans and other legumes. They had the most success with oat milk, but they couldn't find a place to buy the product in bulk, and it was too expensive to purchase from the grocery store.
Soon after, Thoroski was approached to try high-protein, high-fibre beans of the sweet lupin plant by Lupin Platform, a Calgary-based start-up group. It contracts with farmers to grow, mill and sell lupin beans as an ingredient and nutritional additive. It says it has already helped to develop five food ingredients and 12 food prototypes using lupin grown in Canada.
The legume belongs to the same family as peanuts and lentils and is not to be confused with the colourful lupine flower, also known as bluebonnet, which is a different species of lupin. Sweet lupin is grown and cultivated in Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal, but the beans are also eaten as a snack or street food in the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America. Anyone with a peanut allergy should be aware that it could cause a reaction.
About 35 per cent of the bean is protein, similar to soy. It has higher fat content than most legumes, but much less than dairy products. That, and its unique starch and oil composition, gives it a rich, smooth and creamy texture that provides a satisfying mouth feel very similar to dairy ice creams, says Thoroski.
"The lupin was ... better than most of the other stuff that we had tried in terms of texture," he said. "So far, [it] seems to be making pretty good non-dairy ice cream."
He describes the taste as similar to brewed tea, which, he admits, doesn't mix well with all flavours.
Sweet lupins are gluten-free, so some companies are also using the bean in flour and pasta, says Lupin Platform spokesperson Lisa Bateman.
"Because lupin flour is so high protein and so high fibre, they can use it in a 15 to 20 per cent addition and make healthier pasta that doesn't have a difference in taste, texture or colour," she said.
A secondary market is in animal feed.
Only the 3rd lupin harvest in Canada
This year will be the third sweet lupin harvest in Canada. There are 405 hectares of commercial lupin fields on the Prairies and 14 lupin test sites, including in Quebec and Prince Edward Island.
That's a drop in the bucket compared to the size of the soybean crop, for example, which in Manitoba alone was approximately 459,273 hectares in 2022. But Bateman says the goal is to double the lupin crop every year while growing a new market for the bean.
Canadian farmers who have already planted sweet lupin find it's a sustainable rotational crop, she said, because growing it takes less water than some other crops, and it adds nutrients such as nitrogen into the soil, reducing the need for nitrogen fertilizer.
Nitrogen is crucial for plant growth but when used in excess, nitrogen fertilizers can be lost to the air as nitrous oxide, a long-lasting greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.
"And it is disease resistant," Bateman said of lupin. "So farmers who have been growing other legumes and now have disease in their fields have to find an alternative. And lupin is a good option."
Lupins also flourish in highly acidic soil where most crops are unable to grow.
Lupin development is being supported by Protein Industries Canada (PIC), one of Canada's five global innovation clusters, entities that help funnel federal funding to certain priority sectors.
It supports companies, entrepreneurs and startups in the plant-based food sector with the goal of growing Canada's ability to meet the global demand for high-protein, plant-based foods.
PIC CEO Bill Greuel sees great potential in the emerging market for lupin-based products, which is why, in 2021, PIC announced a $7.3-million investment in Lupin Platform and three other companies:
PURIS, whose egg substitute, AcreMade, is being scaled commercially.
Lumi Foods (formerly Blue Heron Creamery), which makes high-end plant-based cheese and other products.
Hensall Co-op, which is testing equipment to process lupins.
"It's really got wide application across the food sector," Greuel said.
Greuel acknowledges there have been challenges when it comes to plant-based foods. For example, Beyond Meat, which makes meat substitutes, said that in its second quarter, revenue dropped by 30 per cent compared with a year ago.
However, he says, companies are now working on second- and third-generation products "mimicking whole muscle cuts of meat, utilizing plant-based products and creamers and dairy substitutes and really focusing on that taste and that mouth feel and what consumers find the most important aspects of a plant-based diet."
As the global demand for food continues to grow and consumers see the quality of plant-based products improving, they will have more market penetration and pick-up, Greuel says.
'A little bit nutty'
Back at BDI, Sophia Papafotiou is trying a lupin bean soft-serve cone.
"It's [a] delicious taste, a little bit nutty," she said. "It's really the texture, super smooth. A little bit thicker than the typical soft-serve ice cream, but really great, great taste."
Papafotiou says she drinks milk alternatives every day, and it's nice to be able to enjoy a soft-serve that's not dairy.
"I do have a lot of friends, too, that are lactose intolerant, and so it's fun to know that there are options out there," she said.
BDI's Jacob is working with the University of Manitoba on new flavours of the lupin soft-serve product, as well as a hard frozen dessert that can be sold to grocery stores, other ice cream shops and restaurants.