Business /
The Start-Up

Peas of the action: Sproud turns a humble pulse into a plant-based milk alternative

‘If it works in Sweden, you know it will work in London or California,’ says Tegman

Maria Tegman, CEO of Sproud, was born on a farm in Ystad, the small coastal town in the south of Sweden that is the setting for the Kurt Wallander mysteries in the novels by Henning Mankell. She is now based in Malmo where The Bridge (the Oresund Bridge, with the dead body neatly cut in two along the border between Denmark and Sweden) was filmed. Fortunately, not only were no murders committed but no animals were harmed – nor even milked – in the making of Sproud, since it is a new plant-based milk alternative. This is not Scandi noir, it’s more Scandi blanc.

Tegman was one of three sisters who did their share of harvesting as they were growing up amid red-painted barns. “But none of us was really interested in that boring farming stuff,” she says. By the age of 16, she had made her mind up to be a chef. “But my parents forced me into education.” She ended up doing a masters in marketing at the University of Lund and spent a year in France in the Champagne district. “If I had to choose a drink other than Sproud,” she says, “it would definitely be champagne.”

Which helps to explain how she stumbled into the exceptionally rare job – virtually an oxymoron – of hosting Swedish wine tours at Kronovall Castle. From there it was a short step to working for Orkla, the leading Nordic food company, where she would soon become marketing manager. “I told them I would only stay for two years,” she says. She ended up staying for 15.

At Orkla, Tegman had the freedom to create new products from scratch. “It suited me because you could do everything,” she says. But she still wanted to build brands of her own and determine “what the future is going to look like”. She was particularly focused on vegan options. She went to the board and said, “We need to speed up!” Their attitude was, “There’s no rush – these things will come in time, Maria.”

She was impatient with the “lazy big-company attitude”, so she struck out on her own, with a notion of creating not just a brand, but a “mission” and a “movement”. She saw that the younger generation were more values-driven. They were buying not just food but beliefs. “You can do anything if you can build the belief,” she says. “It has to be healthy, it has to be sustainable – but it also has to be delicious.”

Her mother (like half of her friends) thought she was mad to leave Orkla. “You have a career and a salary!” But for Tegman working with an old company “wasn’t exciting any more”, so she went ahead and teamed up with an entrepreneur and investor who had recently acquired a food distribution network.

Tegman is particularly proud of the packaging, influenced Factory Records (Sproud)

“My brief was to go and invent something,” she says. “The pressure was enormous.” She felt that it was “nearly impossible” to come up with something new when they were up against a lot of big brands. She says she was guided by three overarching principles: rethink, commit, dare.

In 2016, based in Malmo (across the bridge from Copenhagen), Tegman started by looking at plant-based sources of protein. And she discovered that there was a new contender, the yellow split pea, also used by Beyond Meat. She thought it was better than soya and better than oats (the staple of that other Swedish company, Oatly). Traditionally the pea had tasted “too green and grassy”, and was generally used in savoury dishes, but now there was a variant that was more neutral-tasting, which allowed for greater innovation. This was the “third generation” protein they had been looking for. Sproud – combining “sprout” and “proud” – was born to turn a humble pulse into a plant-based milk. Pea protein is not naturally sweet, and they didn’t want to use refined sugar, but they solved that problem with the addition of agave syrup.

The product launched in Sweden in 2018. Sweden has over 40 per cent LOHAS consumers (“Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability”), dedicated to clean, green alternatives. “It’s like an experimental laboratory. We see if it works here first. Then you know it is going to work in London or California.” Now you can buy Sproud in Waitrose and 15 countries around the world.

Tegman is particularly proud of the packaging. “It’s one of our biggest assets. It’s proof we are doing things differently. We could have put a flower or a butterfly on the side, but we didn’t want to do that.” The design is a set of bold diagonal stripes, in black and off-white (brown and off-white for chocolate milk) influenced by an old record label, Factory Records. “It’s a statement. It says, STOP! Look at this.”

The split pea requires less land than other alternatives sources of plant protein, and less water. It requires no fertiliser and it’s better for the soil. No wonder then, says Tegman, that “farmers love to work with it”. Sproud is encouraging the split pea around the world, but Tegman still has to persuade her father to grow it.

She stresses that it’s not just for vegans. “We wanted to make it for the biggest number of people. You can go straight from dairy to Sproud. It’s the most important single thing you can do, changing what you eat, if you want to affect climate change.” Another advantage of Sproud over dairy milk is that it doesn’t need to be chilled, thus saving on energy, and it lasts for up to a year when unopened.

Sproud is backed up by Sugarwise, certifying that its low sugar claims have been independently verified. It has 32 per cent less fructose than oat milk. Even the chocolate Sproud has less than 5 per cent sugar, the same as ordinary milk. Sugarwise says that British kids consume 10 times more than the recommended level of sugar while at school. Sweden is more sugar-intolerant. Maria Tegman has a couple of young sons. She says that “they eat everything that is real food first, and then they can have candy on top – not the other way around”.

By way of some serious product testing, I sought out Gaz Oakley, the “Avant-Garde Vegan” and author of Plants Only Cookbook, who still dreams of opening his own post-pandemic restaurant. He has become an outspoken champion of Sproud and is now one of its “ambassadors”. Many among his vast YouTube audience are “new vegans” or “thinking about it”. Oakley says Sproud makes becoming more plant-based easy. He used to make his own cashew milk, but now he uses Sproud in any recipe that normally requires milk, notably in his “cheesy” lasagne sauce and in baking cakes. His parents were thinking about trying veganism, but they were worried what they were going to do about putting milk in their cups of tea. He recommended Sproud and now they’re converts. “I’m having it in my coffee right now. The Barista version. Sproud is very milk-like, and it’s creamy, so it froths up. Split peas – who’d have thought it?” Oakley is very much of the John Lennon school of thought: Give peas a chance.