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Engineering a clean label alternative to methylcellulose

Article-Engineering a clean label alternative to methylcellulose

Adobe / Anik wibowo eggmented-reality.jpg
Israeli startup Eggmented Reality is combining material sciences and precision fermentation to develop a clean label alternative to methylcellulose and egg that is just as functional. “Augment your expectations,” it says.

Eggmented Reality’s first product is an ingredient that can replace egg and methylcellulose in a variety of applications and will allow manufacturers to develop the next generation of clean label meat, seafood, and dairy alternatives, it says.

Methylcellulose (E461 in the EU) is a food additive used for a host of properties, often in the same product. It acts as a thickener, emulsifier, binder, stabiliser, and gelling agent in food, drinks, and supplements. It has been approved by food safety authorities around the world for decades, including by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). However, its use has risen in recent years as manufacturers look to replace many of the functionalities of animal proteins, including egg, in plant-based alternative and it is generally not considered to be a clean label additive.

Enter Eggmented Reality’s co-founders, who set out to find a clean label alternative.

“We have developed a unique technology platform that uses material science approaches to characterise functionalities, understand them in different ways, and then to search outwardly for other sources of that functionality that can be better,” said the startup’s CEO and co-founder, Jon Rathauser.

Its “technology platform” was developed by its two scientific co-founders, Itai Bloch and Itamar Yadid, who were working at Israel’s Migal Research Institute. Bringing together their knowledge of protein expression, cheminformatics, and structural biology, they completed a proof-of-concept product. 

In addition to its material science approach, the startup uses precision fermentation to produce its final ingredients, which can be customised to meet specific application requirements, such as allergenicity, pH level, or temperature requirements.

Eggmented Reality, which received an initial investment of $1.2 million from Israel’s Fresh Start FoodTech incubator, is not revealing details of the sources it currently uses to produce the ingredients. However, Rathauser said they are naturally occurring proteins that are already known to the food industry – a fact that should simplify the process of achieving Generally Recognised As Safe (GRAS) status in the US.

It's in the food supply already and is consumed by humans, but it's not necessarily being used for the gelation and binding capabilities that we are now interested in,” he said, adding that the startup wants to target the North American market before undertaking the more complex steps to securing novel food approval for the EU.

According to Rathauser, there are two main reasons to use precision fermentation to produce these proteins, even if they already exist in the food supply chain.

“Number one, it enables us to find ingredients that maybe are not widely accessible naturally, so we can increase the global supply of something that's hard to either access or just doesn't exist in large quantities.

“The second reason to do it is, if you're interested in an animal source protein, then this is a better approach to providing that source of functionality; [...] it should be more environmentally friendly and sustainable.”

‘Open-minded’ about the source material

The entrepreneur, who co-founded digital healthcare startup Keheala and was its CEO for eight years, said Eggmented Reality’s approach is to “take a step backwards” and reverse engineer the functionality of both egg and methylcellulose.

“We're actually using technology to ask the question, ‘was the egg really the best for gelling, binding, foaming, emulsification –  or was it pretty good at all of those features and just easy to use because it was in the backyard and scalable?’
“Our belief is no; it wasn't necessarily the best. And so, we're using technology today to search the natural world for the best source of a particular functionality. [...] We're saying, what if it came from somewhere else? And what if it was actually better? If you're open minded about where that comes from, you can find some pretty surprising solutions out there.”

Although Eggmented Reality’s final ingredients are animal-free, the genetic code of the target protein is not necessarily plant-based, the CEO and co-founder said.  

If the ingredient originates from an animal source, we’re open minded to that,” Rathauser said. “The genetic code can be animal originating, but we will produce it using precision fermentation so that it is a vegan approach to providing food ingredients.”

Adobe / MVProductionseggmented-reality-2.jpg

Scale-up is necessary to bring costs down

The startup currently has the capacity to produce 80 litres. Key to success and wider uptake of its novel ingredient will be scaling up to bring costs down, Rathauser said.

“Right now, we're using a more expensive technology – precision fermentation – to replicate what we already have inexpensively from the animal source and, for many consumers, that's not going to be enough to move the needle and have them transition to these more environmentally-friendly and animal-friendly alternatives.”

To this end, Eggmented Reality is looking for partners with whom it can scale up and co-develop products. It has already established a joint development partnership with one of Israel’s largest food manufacturer’s Tnuva.

“We are working on multiple products across their alternative protein portfolio [and] for some of the applications, we’re helping them to solve process requirements. So, maybe they have a gelling agent already, but it doesn't survive their quality control mechanisms as is. For certain food manufacturers, we can provide them the needed functionality that doesn't require them to change their manufacturing process, and that's big value add-on.”

Made with bioengineering

While Eggmented Reality’s precision fermentation process involves genetic engineering, the final product will not necessarily contain any genetically engineered materials as these can be removed.

Brands using the ingredient may need to disclose the use of genetic engineering in the production process on product labelling – the startup will determine this at a later stage to ensure regulatory compliance – but such declarations are relatively common in the US, Rathauser said, and so this is not a concern for the startup.

In any case, Rathauser is confident that Eggmented Reality’s first ingredient will have a cleaner label than methylcellulose, which is “heavily chemically processed”, he said.

“It will be listed as the specific protein [...], which is natural and known to the food supply,” he told Fi Global Insights.

Despite Eggmented Reality’s initial focus on replacing methylcellulose, its platform can be used to develop other functional equivalents to common additives, Rathauser said, and it is currently fundraising with a view to developing a second ingredient that should be ready next year.