By Gregory Daurer | Oct 26, 2020
Freeze-dried microgreens and teas
"Microgreens are a phase of the plant's life when they're the most concentrated in all the good things: vitamins, minerals, nutrients, antioxidants," says Cowan. "I was like, 'How come no one's doing anything with this?' They just exist in high-end restaurants as a garnish -- a beautiful little piece of art."
What Cowan decided to do was to freeze-dry broccoli plants when they're at their most vital stage in terms of health benefits for humans: between 10 ans 14 days old. At that point, the plants are just beyond being sprouts. Cowan says that by the time actual heads of broccoli are harvested at around 90 days and available for sale at supermarkets, they're mostly "fiber and water" -- and the amount of nutrients they do contain rapidly diminishes, day by day.
For Cowan, the Holy Grail of broccoli microgreens lies in the high levels of sulforaphane to be derived from them. Sulforaphane is a potent compound that's not only an antioxidant, it also triggers the body's ability to produce its own anti-oxidants via a pathway called Nrf2. The activity of the Nrf2 pathway diminishes as we age or when we're infected by a virus. But when someone chews and swallows broccoli microgreens, a reaction takes place, leading to the production of sulforaphane within our stomachs -- thus activating the Nrf2 pathway, and the body's anti-inflammatory responses.
Cowan considers freeze drying technology to be perfect for preserving microgreens: "When you freeze-dry something, you retain up to 97 percent of the concentrated good things, while extending the shelf life upward of 20 years, depending on how you package it."
Cowan receives deliveries of fresh, broccoli microgreens daily -- harvested at 14 days old -- which he then places into his three freeze dryers. Afterward, he incorporates the microgreens into a line of both herbal and caffeinated teas, Microtea, which he sells with product names like Relax, Energize, Focus, and Recovery (the latter containing organic turmeric, tulsi, ginger, and peppercorns, in addition to the broccoli microgreens).
Cowan also packages the unpowdered, broccoli microgreens into containers, selling them as his company's Broccoli Booster product. "It's lightly hand-crushed, so when you look at it you can tell that it is a freeze-dried broccoli microgreen," he says. "It has the shape of the leaves, it has the shape of the stem." He adds, "I believe when you get something that is powdered, you don't know what it is, and you're [relying] on the full trust of the company [to provide you with what they say they are]. When you see the full plant in its full form, you know exactly what you're getting."
Oftentimes, children are finicky eaters when it comes to healthy foods. And one president, George H.W. Bush, famously hated broccoli. But, by way of example, Cowan says parents can "sneak [broccoli microgreens] into mac and cheese, and kids have no complaints about it."
According to a lab analysis of his freeze-dried broccoli microgreens, one teaspoon is nutritionally equivalent to anywhere from a half a head to a full head of broccoli, Cowan says. (One teaspoon equals around 300 freeze-dried microgreens.)
Cowan eventually intends to release a product line which will include several other microgreens, besides just broccoli. He says, "Through economies of scale, we want to get these things really inexpensive [so] everybody has availability. I'm from the South Side of Chicago, and I grew up around food deserts, where the only food available was in a corner store that was either in a box or in a can. There was no fresh produce available in some of these South Side, Chicago neighborhoods." Microgreens would offer a healthy nutritional boost no matter where people are, he says, and Cowan hopes to see microgreens incorporated into MREs for soldiers fighting abroad, researchers working in Antarctica who "rely on one shipment [of food] a year," and astronauts orbiting the Earth within the space station.
"This is a path of passion for me," says Cowan. Previously, he sold enterprise application software for a living. But after spending time with indigenous "farmers, guides, and healers" in Peru, Cowan returned home with a desire to incorporate more plants into his daily life. He turned his apartment into a hydroponic farm, growing hundreds of different varieties, before homing in on the "magic of microgreens."
For Cowan, there's a macro vision to be found in microgreens. "We heal people through nature," he says, "and the nature that we are focused on is microgreens -- as microgreens are the most potent phase in a plant's life. We sneak these good things into people's diets."
Challenges: "Education," says Cowan. "Nobody knows what microgreens are. Even in Boulder -- the Silicon Valley of the Natural Products industry, and a very educated, affluent community -- people are not aware of microgreens." For one thing, they're not sprouts, he says. "Our tests show microgreens might be 10 times more potent than sprouts, and the microgreens are a lot less susceptible to bacterial issues like E. coli and salmonella, where there have been many outbreaks of those issues for sprouts."
Opportunities: "The biggest opportunity is a strategic partnership with a large brand that sees the value of microgreens, and they want to put our microgreens -- that are lab tested and we have some proprietary blend for them -- into their product," says Cowan.
He says the company is working with a horticultural engineer to explore the construction of his own facility. Presently, he sources microgreens from a facility in Denver -- which he won't divulge the name of, in order to preserve his competitive advantage -- that's GAP-certified.
Needs: "Awareness and sales," says Cowan.