UK-based Adamo Foods was founded by Pierre Dupuis, its current CEO, who previously worked at plant-based company Moving Mountains. The startup, which raised £1.5m in pre-seed funding this year to continue its R&D efforts and scale up, is trying to fill the gap for quality, whole cut meat alternatives using mycelium, the root-like structure of filamentous fungi.
“We work with mycelium because it's got structural and nutritional benefits. We can create a much more realistic muscle structure and mycelium has huge nutritional benefits,” said Nick Wood, COO of the startup, speaking to Fi Global Insights at Future Food Tech in London this year.
Mintel: ‘Biomass fermentation holds promise for whole cut alternatives’
While plant-based meat alternatives have proliferated in recent years, many would not pass a blind test – particularly when it comes to replicating the texture of certain meat cuts, such as steak. However, mycoprotein players are convinced that fungi can rise to the challenge – and some market experts agree.
In a recent Ingredient Watch report, Emma Schofield, associate director of global food science at market research firm Mintel, said that mycelium’s fibrous yet tender structure could give it an advantage.
She wrote: “A key limitation of current meat alternatives made using plant proteins is that they struggle to deliver realistic 'whole cuts' of meat. Current plant and mycoprotein-based meat alternatives are typically formed using extrusion, a technology in which a product is broken into very small particles, prior to being reformed into a desired shape. Biomass fermentation holds promise for the development of 'whole cut' meat alternatives.”
The Good Food Institute (GFI), a non-profit organisation that works to promote an animal-free and plant-based food system, also listed fungi, mycoproteins, and mycelium as its number three trend for the alternative protein landscape in 2023.
There is also growing interest in using mycelium as the protein base. Marlow Foods has been manufacturing Quorn since the 1980s, but this year launched a B2B ingredient division to supply other brands with Quorn.
‘An exponential growth phase: Mycelium and liquid-state fermentation
Mycelium can be grown in a solid-state process, whereby it is grown on a solid substrate, and even in the air. Adamo Foods uses liquid state fermentation to produce its ingredient, forming it into slabs that can be cut into steak-like pieces.
Wood said: “We brew it in large bioreactors similar to how you brew beer. We fill a large fermenting vessel with a source of carbon, nitrogen, and some nutrients, inoculate it, and then we grow it over several days.
“The great thing about liquid state is that it's exponential in terms of the scale as well as the unit economics. So, whether you are using a vessel that's tens of litres or tens of thousands of litres, the process is still the same speed. It doubles in speed every few hours. Once you get to very large scale, the unit economics are really attractive.”
Asked how energy intensive it was to dry the mycelium biomass that is grown in a liquid state, Wood said: “There are a number of efficiencies that you can build into that process such as making it continuous, so you are constantly emptying and filling the fermenting vessel as well as keeping the mycelium in its growth phase so that it is constantly […] producing lots of material. Therefore, your productivity per time- and energy-use is much higher. Once these technologies get to scale, [they] can be much more efficient than meat or other plant-based proteins in terms of energy use, water use, land use and resources.”
Leveraging fat for flavour
Adamo Foods’ mycelium, which contains protein, fibre, and all nine essential amino acids, has a relatively neutral taste profile with some umami notes. This means it acts as a blank slate for building complex flavour profiles, Wood said. Unlike soy- or pea-based brands that may use flavour maskers or strong liquid smoke flavours to hide the off-notes or flavour of the plant protein base, Adamo can replicate a more “authentically meaty” profile with rare, bloody, and meaty notes rather than smoky or chargrilled notes, Wood added.
Much of the flavour and texture of steak also comes from the fat content. Increased marbling significantly impacts the beef flavour because of the increased amount of fat available for the formation of flavour compounds. Nuances in beef flavour, such as species-specific taste profiles, are also associated with the lipid content: more than 650 fat-soluble volatiles are released when beef is heated, according to The Chemistry of Beef Flavour, a report by Dr Susan Brewer from the department of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois, prepared for the US-based National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
Adamo Foods uses a blend of natural, flavoured plant-based fats in its vegan alternative.
“We have a blended fat throughout the product as well as a visual fat element that creates this succulence and tenderness – the mouthfeel [experience] that you get from biting into a whole-cut steak,” Wood said.
However, in the future it is interested in using cultivated beef fat or fermented fats, which would create an adipose layer for an “authentic steak-like experience”, he added. These fats could be added after the mycelium has been harvested or during the growth phase so that the fat is part of the mycelium biomass.
The startup has also begun biofortification trials to improve the nutrient profile of its mycelium during the fermentation stage, specifically for omega-3 fatty acids.
In terms of consumer perception of mycelium, Wood said he believed it to be generally positive but that more work needed to be done to educate consumers.
“We already know from Quorn […] that consumers are open to eating mycelium. They are still the highest selling meat alternative in the UK and have a massive global presence now. We think there is still room to do an education piece about the benefits of mycelium versus other plant-based products. For example, being higher in protein, a higher protein digestibility score than other plant-based products but also than beef itself.”