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Of the three pillars of alternative protein, plant-based is getting the most mainstream attention and cultivated meat is the currernt darling of VC investors. But fermentation may be the most practical in terms of both cost and scalability, and one area of that segment turning heads of late is mycoprotein.
From an affordability and nutritional point of view, mycoprotein has a boatload of advantages over other forms of alternative protein — a point underscored this week when The Spoon’s Chris Albrecht profiled a company called Kernel Mycofoods. In their own words, the folks behind the Buenos Aires, Argentina-based company are currently on a mission to “make a product that [is] comparable without a price that will exclude the emerging markets.”
But Kernel isn’t the only company hoping to bring mycoprotein to the forefront, which makes now a good time to take a closer look into what this segment of fermentation is and why it matters to alternative protein.
Mycoprotein is a single-cell protein made from a naturally occurring filamentous fungus called fusarium venenatum. To get mycoprotein, fungi spores are fermented alongside glucose in fermentation tanks in a process similar to that of brewing beer. The entire operation produces a pasty, doughy texture that resembles a chicken breast.
Up to now, the most well-known application of mycoprotein is as the main ingredient of Quorn’s meat analogues. But as noted above, several other companies are now getting recognition for their use of mycoprotein as an alternative to traditional meat. That list includes Kernel Mycofoods as well as Better Meat Co., which opened its production facility last month, and food giant Unilever. The latter is producing a mycoprotein called Abunda through a partnership with Scottish company Enough.
Experts say mycoprotein is high in fiber, low in sodium, has an inherently meaty texture, and is rich in amino acids. Kernel, for example, says its mycoprotein has a higher protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score than beef, soy, or wheat gluten.
Mycoprotein falls into the “biomass fermentation” category, as opposed to traditional or precision fermentation (though the lines between all three can be blurred). Because of this, its biggest advantage compared to other forms of alt-protein is its ability to scale at a lower price point. The Good Food Institute noted in its 2020 State of the Industry report on fermentation that biomass fermentation offers “well-established examples of scalability and cost reduction suitable for alternative protein applications.”
Mycoprotein specifically has a number of other advantages.
Versatility is a big one. Mycoprotein can be used on its own, as Quorn does with it, or it can be blended with traditional meat to enhance the latter’s flavor and nutritional profile. For example, it could reduce the amount of cholesterol found in a traditional burger patty.
Mycoprotein also already has an established track record, having been approved for use in food products in the early 1980s. That point alone suggests companies won’t face the same types of regulatory hurdles they do with, say, cultured meat.
And as an alternative to plant-based meat analogues like those of Beyond and Impossible, mycoprotein is a potentially much more eco-friendly operation since it doesn’t require land to grow plants or significant amounts of downstream processing to get the meaty texture consumers want.
Of all these things, though, nutrition might just be the main driver behind mycoprotein. Citing panelists at the recent IFT FIRST event, Food Navigator recently reported that “consumers increasingly want products that are nutritionally comparable to or better for them than animal protein – something the current industry is not fully delivering.” The “current industry” in this case are plant-based analogues from the likes of Beyond and Impossible, companies that talk at length about elements like texture and mouthfeel but very little about their products nutritional profiles. Nutrition will, according to IFT FIRST panelists, be the “disrupting” factor in the near term when it comes to alternative proteins.
All of those factors mean mycoprotein could well become the breakout star of the alt-protein sector by the end of the year.
Plant-Based Cheese Company Nobell Foods Raises $75M – The company will use the new funds to commercialize its first plant-based cheese products, including mozzarella, which the company makes from soybeans that are genetically edited to produce casein.
Bezos-Backed NotCo Raises $235M for Plant-Based Alternatives – This new capital will allow NotCo to expand into new product categories in North America and scale its proprietary A.I. platform.
Redefine Meat Launches 5 “New Meat” Plant-Based Proteins in Israel – Plant-based meat company Redefine Meat announced five new products are now available at select Israeli restaurants and hotels.