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Wood as food: Arbiom CEO on creating high-protein yeast from wood

Arbiom uses microbial fermentation to transform carbohydrates from wood biomass and residues into a single-cell protein yeast that can be added to food and feed.

“If you walk in a forest, you see mushrooms growing on living trees and we took inspiration from that,” said Marc Chevrel, CEO of US-headquartered start-up Arbiom. “The mushroom is going to release enzymes to make the wood palatable to it and then use it to produce food. We are doing that but in a more systematic, efficient, and industrial way to close the protein gap.”

The search for novel, sustainable protein sources is attracting increasing attention and Arbiom is part of NextGenProteins, a four-year, EU-funded project that aims to test and compare alternative protein sources for feed and food applications.

Although Arbiom’s ingredient, Sylpro, could be produced from virgin wood, it prefers to upcycle wood-based residues and co-streams generated by the paper, pulp and wood industries, such as sawdust, for both environmental and economic reasons. The wood it uses is traceable and the end-product cost-effective.

While the sustainability argument can be compelling – wood residues do not compete with other food sources in terms of land resources or water – the ingredient’s main selling-point is its nutritional and functional qualities, Chevrel said.

Arbiom’s yeast, which it describes as an unprocessed and natural proprietary dried yeast made using bio-conversion and fermentation, contains around 60% protein, 25% carbohydrates, and less than 2% fat.

Its protein content beats soy concentrate for nutritional quality and is on a par with whey protein concentrate based on the Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIAAS). It is an “excellent source” of the key amino acids, lysine, methionine, and threonine, compared with other plant protein concentrates, the CEO said.

A savoury, umami flavour

Like conventionally produced yeast, Sylpro has a strong umami flavour, making it ideal for savoury food applications, however, the start-up is currently working to develop different versions with a more neutral taste. (The tree species used in the production process does not affect the taste of the final product. “It’s too far away from the final product to have an impact on taste or composition. The microorganism is really key here,” Chevrel explained.)

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As for how the ingredient will be declared on ingredients lists, Arbiom is betting on ‘inactive dried yeast’. Chevrel said that some manufacturers will want to communicate about the provenance of the protein.

“We are proud of what we’re doing and believe it would be a great addition to say the yeast comes from wood because of the sustainability aspect but it’s up to the manufacturer and they will have different approaches,” he told Fi Global Insights.

Perception and acceptance

The question is therefore, are consumers open to eating food derived from wood?

In 2016, Kraft, Walmart and other manufacturers in the US found themselves the object of class action lawsuits over misleading food labelling following allegations that Parmesan cheese produced in the US was made with wood pulp.

Although the ingredient in question, cellulose, is generally recognized as safe (GRAS) under FDA regulations and is used in a number of food applications thanks to its functional properties, the headlines that made national news were both eye-catching and effective in rousing consumer concerns. Bloomberg’s headline, for instance, was ‘The Parmesan Cheese You Sprinkle on Your Penne Could Be Wood’.

Although cellulose is not the only wood-derived food ingredient on the market – xylitol can be made from birch and vanillin from wood – the public reaction suggests people have relatively stringent ideas about where food should come from.

Chevrel, however, is confident that Arbiom’s ingredient will not face similar problems.

“That was mostly a labelling issue and one company’s product in particular, which was not Parmesan at all but a mix of Cheddar and cellulose that was added to avoid making clumps,” he said. “In our case, there is no cellulose left and there is no cellulose added either, so on that point I’m not concerned. Yeast is usually viewed as a beneficial and natural food used in beer, bread and other applications.

“What we add with the wood story is […] a new source for raw material for food. The end-product is yeast not wood, wood is just fuel for the microorganism to grow. When you are eating a steak, you are not eating hay, it’s meat. With our product, you are eating yeast, but made with something that has not been used until now to make it grow,” he added.

Regulatory barriers

In the US, Sylpro is considered Torula yeast and Arbiom does not need to obtain a Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) classification. For the European market, it is in the process of verifying if a novel food application is required, it and has factored in the time required to overcome such regulatory hurdles if needed.

“The microorganism has a history of safe use […] and yeast typically grows on substrates coming from a hydrolysed plant so we believe that in spite of the changes to the [production] process we will fall into the category of being already approved,” Chevrel said.

“In any case, we have taken regulatory steps soon enough so they will not impede our development in any way. We are building a commercial plant for 2022 or 2023 so that mass availability will be ready then in 2023. We have time to get approval.”

The location of the factory will depend on investment opportunities but Chevrel said it is considering Europe or the US, regions where it sees significant commercial opportunities. The start-up is also looking at synthesising other high-value ingredients from microorganisms and wood, such as omega-3 fatty acids, although these projects are still at the conceptual stage.

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