The sheer diversity of ingredients and materials that come from the fungi kingdom highlights its potential to be used as a tool for sustainable change in the field of food and beyond.
For millennia, people have eaten fungi in the form of mushrooms, the fresh fruiting body of the fungus. However, in recent years research and development (R&D) has revealed the versatility of fungi across industries: fungi are a source of active ingredients for pharmaceutical drugs, while mycelium biomass can be used to create alternatives to meat, leather, plastic packaging, and even construction materials.
Fungal strains can also be used as host organisms in precision fermentation, producing high-value ingredients such as steviol glycosides, dairy proteins, or omega-3 fatty acids in a low-impact way without requiring the resources of traditional forms.
Fermentation creates minimally processed products
At a panel discussion at Fi Europe 2023 in Frankfurt, industry experts discussed the power of fungi to transform the food landscape for the better.
One of the benefits of using mycelium as a base for meat alternatives is that fermentation is a relatively gentle production process compared to, say, extrusion or Couette shear cell technology that are used on plant proteins like pea or soy.
“We can reduce the complexity of what we have right now in the plant industry,” said Anne-Catherine Hutz, co-founder and vice president of product at mycelium startup Infinite Roots, formerly known as Mushlabs. “[With] extrusion, for example, we [use] a lot of energy and high temperatures that go on the protein, so we lose a lot of nutrients in the process.”
Mycelium manufacturers can also alter the taste, texture, and nutritional value of the biomass by tweaking the fermentation parameters or changing the feedstock on which the mycelium is grown. This means that fewer processing steps or additives are required downstream – and with a growing backlash against ultra-processed foods and their perceived unhealthiness, this could be a compelling argument for consumers looking for clean label meat alternatives.
According to Isabella Iglesias Musachio, founder and CEO of Bosque Foods, a Berlin-based startup making whole cut meat alternatives using mycelium, this is Bosque Foods’ “biggest unique selling point.”
“We grow [the mycelium] with, inherently, this incredible texture and a solid structure […] so by the time we harvest our mycelium, we are actually dealing with a product that is almost as close to the end product as you can get. That's why we are able to create products that are very clean label, minimally processed, and without a ton of DFPs [dietary fibre polysaccharides],” said Iglesias Musachio.
Mycelium can provide protein, fibre, lipids, and micronutrients
Mycelium is often called mycoprotein, and the original mycelium brand, Quorn, often refers to its ingredient as such. However, this term is not perfect, said Hutz, because it only calls out the protein content of the mycelium biomass, ignoring other important macronutrients, such as fibre.
“…we need to be careful that we are not telling consumers something wrong because if we use biomass as a whole, it's not just protein,” said Hutz. “At Infinite Roots, we are looking into the benefits of the fibre part, which also give a lot of benefits.”
She said it was important to communicate the health benefits of mycelium’s fibre content – particularly in Europe where most people meet and even exceed the recommended intake for protein but tend to be deficient in fibre.
Mycelium can contain other nutrients of interest as well. Iglesias Musachio said Bosque Foods’ mycelium contains important micronutrients such as vitamin D12, a precursor to B12, while Emilia Nordlund, research manager at Finnish research organisation VTT, said VTT was looking at developing strains that contain other macronutrients such as fats and lipids.
“Lipids can mimic the meat juiciness or texture that is important for meat alternatives […] and can bring in not only the flavour and sensory qualities but also the nutritional qualities,” said Nordlund.
The benefits of using fungi as a precision fermentation ‘workhorse’
Another field in which fungi are used to create food ingredients is precision fermentation. Fungi is used as a “workhorse” to produce an ingredient of interest, which could be a protein, plant lipid, flavour, colour, or bioactive molecule.
Nordlund said: “It's really broad how you can imagine using different fungal strains – depending of course on the strain.”
Finnish precision fermentation startup Onego Bio, for instance, spun off from a VTT research project, is now looking to commercialise its ovalbumin, the major component of egg white protein, that is made in a factory without the use of hens.
In the precision fermentation space, fungi offer certain advantages over other organisms (yeast, bacteria, or microalgae) that can also be used as the “workhorse”, according to Nordlund. VTT works with Trichoderma, which secretes the molecule of interest within the culture media but outside the cells and biomass. Bacteria, on the other hand, almost always produce the target molecule intra-cellularly, which means more downstream processing is needed to isolate and remove it from the final ingredient, Nordlund explained.
Fast scale-up and routes-to-market
Fungal proteins, including mycelium, also offer something that other foodtech-derived proteins, such as cell-cultured meat products, do not have: a much faster scale-up and route-to-market.
“I think that [...] fungal products and processes really can play a big role especially when we compare [them] to cultured meat or other solutions that are really long-term in development,” Nordlund said. “With fungi, we can really scale up fast, get the regulations, show the safety, and really build the processes.”
Going forward, however, she predicted that the future of sustainable product development would be hybrid rather than 100% fungi-based.
“We don't need to do only fungal-based foods and materials,” Nordlund said. “I think there are a lot of opportunities combining [ingredients], and that can also be the fast track to the market – combining plant-based ingredients with fungal-based ingredients, either precision fermented or whole ones.”
Main image: © iStock/Dusan Stankovic