If you’re biting into any sort of plant-based meat these days, odds are its main ingredient is soy, peas, or wheat. But that might not be the case for long if Prime Roots has its way.
The company’s cofounder and CEO, Kimberlie Le, got the inspiration for the company back in 2017, when she began questioning why alternative meats were made from the same few plants. “I wondered — why aren’t people looking at not plants?” she told me in a recent phone interview. So she began experimenting in the Berkeley Alternative Meat Lab with co-founder Joshua Nixon, looking for a plant-free protein building block to upend the meatless status quo.
Eventually, they found it in mushrooms. Or more specifically, mycelium: mushroom roots. (No, mushrooms are not technically plants — they’re fungi.) These roots, which are produced in a process akin to beer brewing, can be used to make any manner of meat substitutes, from shrimp to bacon to crab cakes.
Mycelium have a few advantages over other plant proteins. According to Le, the fungi they use are tasteless, so they don’t have to mask any off plant flavors (like the tongue-coating bitterness that comes with pea protein.) Mycelium require minimal resources to grow and are a more efficient source of protein than plants, which often require solvents to fully extract all the protein. Prime Roots can also tweak the fungi’s nutritional content, adjusting its levels of protein and fat. “We can make our product have 50 percent more protein than meat,” Le said.
Most importantly, though, mycelium have an extremely versatile flavor and texture, meaning they can be used to make any manner of meat or seafood substitutes. While still operating under their former name of Terramino Foods, they were focusing on fish-free salmon burgers. Now they’ve taken a step back to re-evaluate.
To narrow down the choices, they’ve posted a voting page on their website with 12 meaty and protein-heavy options — from chicken tenders to protein bars — all of which Prime Roots has already tested internally. Anyone who casts their vote will have early access to the products at a discounted price.
When they do launch, which Le anticipates will be around 2020, Prime Roots will be sold exclusively online. Le said they’re waiting to start selling their products until they’re priced competitively with meat. Which they’re actually not too far from — as of now — Prime Roots can make their mycelium for only a few dollars a pound.
Prime Roots currently has a team of 10. Last year they participated in the prestigious IndieBio accelerator program and raised $4.25 million.
By choosing to use mycelium as a meat substitute, Prime Roots is going up against one of the highest-grossing meat alternative companies in the world: Quorn. The company uses fermented mycoprotein, a type of fungi, as the base of their meat-free products. Per Le, Prime Roots’ advantage comes down to the unique properties and simplicity of their mycelium. “The fungi that [Quorn] uses has only been in the diet the last 50 or so years,” she said. “We looked at what protein people have been using a lot longer.”
Prime Roots is also hoping that their emphasis on community — putting the product choice in the hand of the consumers — will help them stand out as the alt-protein space gets more crowded. That way Prime Roots can sniff out gaps in the market and develop new products accordingly using their mushroomy building blocks.
It’s a clever idea. But Prime Roots will need more than just catchy marketing strategies to go up against a behemoth like Quorn, which has a sizeable range of products, global name recognition and a widespread retail footprint. To stand out, Prime Roots will have to not only make a product that tastes excellent, but also one that consumers don’t already see in the grocery aisle.
I just cast my own vote — bacon all the way. If Prime Roots can nail the taste of a product as popular (and, in the meat alternative space, as underrepresented) as that, they’ll have more than just a shot at carving out their own space in the alt-protein market.