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Will consumers accept ingredients made through microbial fermentation?

Start-ups and multinationals alike are using microbial fermentation to ‘brew’ valuable molecules in a cheaper and more efficient way, from deforestation-free palm oil to animal-free dairy and leafless stevia – but how likely are consumers to accept these lab-produced ingredients?

US start-up Perfect Day uses microbial fermentation to brew dairy proteins that are identical to those found in cow’s milk for milk while C16 Biosciences does the same for palm oil.

The companies argue that their products are more sustainable and ethical than the natural alternatives. Perfect Day removes animals – and therefore animal cruelty, methane emissions and feed-fuelled land use – from dairy products while C16 Biosciences’ palm oil is produced without deforestation and biodiversity loss.

Silicon Valley-based start-up Protera Biosciences uses a proprietary, artificial intelligence-powered algorithm to ‘craft’ proteins and then scales up production through fermentation. It says its proteins can make food healthier or more functional. One product can transform saturated fats into unsaturated ones, creating a healthier nutrition profile, while another extends the shelf life of food, replacing chemical-based preservatives and reducing food waste.

The CEO of Protera Biosciences, Leonardo Alvarez, said its processes and products are aligned with the clean label trend in food, particularly as its proteins already exist in nature and are not modified.

Players in this small but growing space like to emphasize that the production process is fermentation, a natural and age-old technique used to make traditional foods from cheese to beer, kimchi to yoghurt. However, the reality is often more ‘artificial intelligence’ than ‘artisan’ with molecules fermented in giant bioreactors.

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Dr Rachel Cheatham, founder and CEO of nutrition strategy consultancy Foodscape Group warned that synthetic or lab-produced ingredients may never be acceptable for some consumers, particularly those who believe in ‘clean eating’ and try to eat natural food made with ingredients sourced in natural ways.

“Importantly, nature-identical, nature-inspired or other similar positioning may not be sufficient to meet the spirit of clean label in an environment already distrusting of ‘big food’ companies,” she said.

Sustainability is often the strongest selling point for companies making ingredients using biotransformation techniques and many are devoting their production to resource-heavy ingredients. The best-tasting steviol glycoside, rebaudioside M or Reb M, exists in tiny amounts in stevia leaves, meaning significant amounts of land and water are used to grow leaves that do not end up in the final product. Fermenting the Reb M molecule is much more precise and resource-efficient.

But the sustainability argument alone may not be sufficient to justify this technology for some. Genetic modification and engineering have the potential to improve the nutrient content of crops or make them more resistant to climate change shocks, but they remain unacceptable to many individuals.

“It’s dangerous to assume consumers will automatically see sustainability as a legitimate reason to pursue biotransformation techniques,” said Cheatham. “Consumers will question the trade-offs, knowing that synthetic biology is not without viable alternatives, and also wonder about unintended consequences like the introduction of novel allergens or economic consequences for farmers.”

‘A marketing toolkit is not sufficient’

Credible and accessible communication about the production process is important so consumers can make informed decisions about whether to buy the product or not, said Cheatham.

“Simply putting out a marketing toolkit or carefully crafting language about fermentation being just like beer or cheese-making on a brand’s website will not likely be sufficient to yield acceptance in those regions that are already predisposed to be sceptical,” she added.

In today’s dynamic world of communication, real-time, iterative exchanges of information, ideally from unbiased sources, could help build broad trust beyond one brand or single technology, she said. Companies could also explore the role that health and nutrition influencers who believe in the benefits of synthetic biology could play as digital storytellers.

Other experts believe that, ultimately, the deciding factors in consumer acceptability will be the price tag on supermarket shelves and how good the product tastes.

Flavour technologist Alex Woo is the CEO and founder of W20 Innovation, a product development consultancy that specializes in neuroscience and plant-based ingredients.

“You can’t ignore the sustainability argument, it’s something we must face because we just don’t have enough resources to feed people,” he said. “But it is further down the list; right now, people care more about taste and price than sustainability. And the cleanest label comes at the highest price.”

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