Alumna of the year Reetta Kivelä

Dare to be different

Alumna of the Year, Reetta Kivelä, Chief Technology Officer of the Gold&Green Foods start-up, and the oat-based plant protein known as pulled oats that she developed have been subject to more hype in Finnish media than probably any other food product or food scientist.

But during an interview at Gold&Green Foods’ product development facilities in the Arabia district of Helsinki, Kivelä appears surprisingly ordinary. She seems down-to-earth, approachable and a little self-conscious. You would not believe that she is accustomed to doing things differently.

There are no clean coffee cups. Without a second thought, Kivelä opens the dishwasher mid-cycle and grabs the requisite cups.

Startled, her co-worker says that she would never dare do that. After thinking for a moment, she continues that it is not the only thing Kivelä has dared to do in her life.

Kivelä’s experiences as a student on the Kumpula and Viikki campuses were exceptional, for she gave birth to her first child in spring 1998. At the time, she was 21, studying chemistry as her major subject for the second year and cramming for the entrance examination in food sciences. 

“Maternity leave was a great opportunity to take a break and prepare for the entrance exam,” Kivelä says.

The young Kivelä found chemistry to be too extensive. When the lectures explored the dispersal of molecules in space, the whole world – or at least the world of chemistry – seemed too open, which made the pragmatic Kivelä anxious. Then she found food chemistry in the course catalogue.

“It gave me a framework. Chemistry was studied in relation to foods, which made the whole thing easier to approach.”

Kivelä and her family moved to a student building in Viikki where all the other residents also had children. When one of the mothers went to attend a lecture, the others would look after her child. If this was impossible, Kivelä’s daughter would sleep in a pram with a baby monitor outside the lecture room.

“It’s nice to be at home with kids, but it’s not intellectually stimulating. Studying and taking examinations suited my life perfectly,” Kivelä explains.

She could not attend all lectures due to her role as a mother. One of her most unpleasant memories is how she had to substitute for an easy basic-studies lecture series by “memorising a huge pile of books as retribution”.

“It was frustrating, but it’s not that bad. In a way, it’s par for the course.”

Her best memories relate to when she understood the framework, or “matrix”, of food science as a whole and how different aspects are interlinked.

“I learned to study and experienced quite a ‘flow’. I was able to keep track of the big picture and easily add pieces to it. That’s an experience I have since carried with me.”

Kivelä slowed her pace in 2000 when she had twins. She only had her Master’s thesis to do, which was delayed by a year when Kivelä stayed at home with her three daughters.

In her Master’s thesis, Kivelä used old formulas she had found in the literature to synthesise the oxidation products of stigmasterol for use by other researchers. Stigmasterol is the same soy lipid-derived phytosterol found, for example, in Benecol products. 

Kivelä found her thesis work hard going. She was close to tears many times as she struggled in a laboratory for a few months, unable to produce stigmasterol.

But the synthetisation and related reporting were eventually successful, and her thesis was passed with the grade of cum laude approbatur.

“I haven’t even opened my thesis since then. At that point, the only thing that mattered was getting it done.”

Kivelä was successful in reconciling her studies with family life, but she had to pay a price.

She missed out on traditional student life, with its parties and adventures. In addition, she never had a summer job. She first entered employment in her field after she had graduated as a Master’s degree holder.

“For some reason it wasn’t considered a weakness that I had spent all my summers as a student taking care of my children.”

In her first job at the food and environmental laboratory in Hämeenliina, Kivelä was the supervisor of five laboratory assistants.

“No one had told us that we would immediately work as supervisors. It was initially quite a shock for someone with no previous work experience.”

Kivelä soon moved to another job running development projects at the Atria sausage and salad factory in Forssa, but after three years she returned to academia. In 2007 she was selected to the University of Helsinki research group in crop technology to complete her dissertation on beta-glucan, the healthy oat fibre.

She should not actually have been allowed to embark on doctoral studies because they require a grade of magna cum laude or higher for the Master’s thesis.

“The rules were not applied as strictly then, and I had received excellent grades for general studies, which was possibly considered extenuating circumstances.”

Researchers have shown that oat beta-glucan lowers LDL cholesterol and helps keep blood sugar levels even. However, as anyone who has ever made oat porridge knows, the fibre has a slimy texture, which means it can easily block factory filters.

Another problem with beta-glucan for industry was the fact that it changes its state uncontrollably. For example, an oat drink may initially be quite thick as a result of beta-glucan, but when stored, it may become runny.

Kivelä’s dissertation supervisor, Tuula Sontag-Strohm, tasked her with finding why this happens.

“It was a highly applied research question that above all required concrete problem-solving,” Kivelä points out.

The research group discovered for the first time in the world that beta-glucan is broken down during storage, a process that is explained by factors including the oxidisation of the fibre molecule. The researchers also found new oxidisation reactions.

Both ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, and iron accelerate the oxidisation of beta-glucan and, thus, its breaking down. This finding was important because the food industry usually uses ascorbic acid for the opposite reason, i.e., to prevent the product from oxidising.

“It’s impossible to fully prevent beta-glucan from breaking down, and due to industrial processes it’s actually beneficial. But it’s important to know the process to be able to control it,” Kivelä states.

Her doctoral dissertation was selected in 2011 as the dissertation of the year in applied biosciences at the University of Helsinki.

“It was cool to find the reason for the breaking down of oat fibre. I was alone in the world to defend my finding at conferences. At first I had to stand up for my results, but further research confirmed my original finding.”

Kivelä worked as head of research at Fazer for four years, trying to establish, for example, how the refinement of cocoa beans into chocolate affects their antioxidants, flavanols.

In autumn 2014, Kivelä’s childhood friend, the entrepreneur Maija Itkonen, tapped into the zeitgeist by persuading the oat expert Kivelä to see whether she could manufacture an “oat meat” that could be cut and fried.

After experiments in her home kitchen over Christmas, Kivelä eventually succeeded in cooking and browning a somewhat “schnitzel-like” oat steak. In spring 2015, the two women established their Gold&Green Foods company.

However, a product consisting entirely of oats seemed difficult to produce on an industrial scale, so the women recruited University of Helsinki researcher Zhong-qing Jiang, who specialised in legumes, as their head of research.

Kivelä and her new head of research travelled to northern China because the region boasts industrial expertise in the processing of soy, is one of the world’s biggest producers of oats and manufactures many innovative oat products, such as oat noodles and oat bran dessert balls.

On their first trip, the two carried Finnish oatmeal and oat bran in their backpacks. Once they found a partner laboratory in the countryside close to Beijing, they carried larger amounts of oats in their suitcases on the following trips.

The Chinese laboratory mixed the oats with broad bean and yellow pea. The mass was kept fairly dry to prevent the oats from acquiring a slimy texture. The mass was ground and heated by machine to obtain fibres of suitable length. The ratio of oat in the mixture was gradually increased.

“Once a suitable structure was achieved with a mass consisting of 50% oat, the lab erupted in cheers. Thirty men spoke excitedly in Chinese, raised their mugs in toast and enthused how this would be the next Pepsi Company,” Kivelä describes the breakthrough moment.

On their way back through customs, the pair had difficulty explaining what the fabric-like pulled oat fibre actually was.

In Finland, pulled oats were immediately a tremendous success. The demand far exceeded the production capacity of the Järvenpää factory.

However, the strategy of Gold&Green Foods is not to be a food factory, but a technology company. The purpose is to keep the resources in product development and sell licenses for the manufacture of pulled oats to food companies throughout the world.

In addition to new types of pulled oats, the product development laboratory in Helsinki is currently planning several other plant-based sources of protein.

For Kivelä, the Alumna of the Year title seems natural. She feels she has never left the University’s corridors. In her new honorary role, she intends to put the spotlight on issues such as equality and innovation.

“In Finland, I have never had to think that I’m just a girl. But you don’t have to go further than Central Europe to find a much more traditional and masculine food industry,” Kivelä says.

According to her, innovations require a wide range of people looking at the world from different perspectives.

“I found it easy to grasp the idea of pulled oats as a working vegetarian mother. I had no time to soak lentils.”

Kivelä says that the Finnish mentality that you should feel ashamed for trying and failing is completely unnecessary. She feels that the basic security provided by our welfare state has encouraged her to try unlikely things which have a minimal chance of success.

If Kivelä were to change something at the University, she would like teachers to talk not only about research and theory, but also about their concerns.

“Five minutes of every lecture could be devoted ‘my thoughts today’. You can’t create innovations if you have no concerns that motivate you to delve deeper.”

FACTS

Alumna of the Year

* Reetta Kivelä, born in Hämeenlinna in February 1977

* Chief technology officer at Gold&Green Foods

* Known as the developer of pulled oats

* Studied chemistry at the Kumpula Campus from 1996 to 1998 and food chemistry at Viikki from 1998 to 2003

* Dissertation completed in 2003 involved the synthetisation of stigmasterol for the use of other researchers

* Developed production processes at the Atria sausage and salad factories in Forssa from 2004 to 2007

* Postgraduate student in the Viikki-based University of Helsinki research group in crop technology from 2007 to 2011

* Dissertation on the causes for the breaking down of oat beta-glucan in industrial processes selected as the 2011 dissertation of the year in applied biosciences at the University of Helsinki

* Head of research at Fazer from 2011 to 2015

* Founded Gold&Green Foods together with her friend Maija Itkonen in 2015 and became a start-up entrepreneur

* Mother of four children born in 1998, 2000 (twins) and 2006

* Hobbies include experimental gardening at her cabin as well as creative writing

FACTS

Pulled oats

* Developed by Gold&Green Foods, pulled oats are a protein-rich plant product that can be used in cooking similarly to minced meat.

* The product contains not only oats, but also yellow peas and broad beans.

* One hundred grams of the product contain some 30 grams of protein, 4 grams of fat, 10 grams of carbohydrate and 3 grams of fibre.