With the number of consumers who identify as flexitarian rising from 26% in 2020 to 31% in 2022, the demand for healthier, more sustainable protein alternatives is growing. And with FMCG Gurus data showing that 26% of global consumers in 2022 plan to increase their intake of plant-based food & drink throughout the year, this is a trend that shows no signs of slowing down.
While soy and wheat have traditionally been the most popular choice of protein alternative ingredient due to their functionality, availability, and affordability, they are no longer the only options. From pea to mushroom and everything in between, new products offering different health, environmental and nutritional benefits are continually entering the market.
Healthy for you, healthy for the planet
Microbial protein, derived from fungi, is a low-calorie, high-protein and high-fibre fermented product that is growing in popularity.
Quorn’s mycoprotein, which has been around for decades, is derived from Fusarium venenatum, an ascomycete, which is a type of fungus that naturally occurs in the soil. US headquartered startup 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.
Another company exploring this space is Netherlands-based startup, NoA Biosciences, which is transforming woody biomass into fungal protein products.
“We are proposing what we call a ‘wood to food’ process, to use the abundantly available woody biomass to produce a ‘centre of the dish’ food product,” Koen Wentink, CEO EU at NoA Biosciences told Fi Global Insights.
The final product, a mushroom-based fungal meat alternative product with enhanced protein content, has the same health benefits and umami flavour as regular mushrooms and is a healthy, nutritious alternative to other protein alternatives on the market, the startup claims.
Containing 0% fat and a variety of vitamins and polyphenols offering health benefits, the ingredient is intended for use in cooking to replace traditional proteins.
“We are calling [the product] a fungal meat. A lot of the of the alternative products available right now are finished products, for example the likes of those from Beyond Burger. This is a more versatile product which can be used in different applications. It can be used to make a burger, but it can also be used on a pizza, or as a meatball or in Chinese cuisine,” Wentink said.
A sustainable, zero-waste process
The product is produced via a process of fermentation in which the woody biomass is converted into a fermentable substrate which is then inoculated with the mycelium of edible fungi. The fungi are then harvested and undergo few minimal processing steps, to create fresh fungal meat products.
The source material, which could range from fallen down trees to wood leftovers at a paper plant, are readily available materials which are 100% sustainable and organic, and do not involve deforestation of any sort to acquire, making the product circular and environmentally friendly.
With sustainability a key business priority, the production sites will also be locally situated to the site of the source biomass in attempt to limit transportation and environmental harms.
If consumers were to replace just one fifth of their red meat consumption with microbial proteins derived from fungi or algae, deforestation could be reduced by a staggering 56% come 2050, a study published in Nature journal shows.
“The way we see it is, there are two primary production steps. One is the conversion of the biomass into the substrate which will be done relatively close to where the biomass is. The second step, the growing of the fungi, will be developed in-house,” said Wentink.
“The idea is that when we start scaling up, we do it locally at farm level so that we scale up through the multiplication of smaller size units, such as farms near population centres.”
Nutritious mycelium remaining in the substrate after harvesting will also be recycled into products for the feed industry, such as worm or insect feed or biofertilizer.
“There's no waste in the process so it’s very highly sustainable. From the production point of view, if you look at some of our competitors, they are investing hundreds of millions of dollars into single factories to demonstrate their technology yet scaling up at the farm level makes it much less capex intense,” Wentink said.
From mushroom to market
Founded in the US, NoA Biosciences is currently raising a seed round funding to support setting up operations in the Netherlands.
The startup is planning to start producing small quantities of the product to test the market, with the first sample expected by September and on the market within the next six to 12 months. The product will first be marketed initially to food services and later will be available direct to consumer.
“The idea is that we go to market, we sell it to chefs, to restaurants, food operators, food services basically. Once we reach a certain scale, we will also make it available in the fresh counters in supermarkets and in other retail, for example through HelloFresh as a menu item,” Wentink said.
NoA is already connected with a chef who is keen to begin testing out the food product with consumers in collaboration with a variety of restaurants.