Interest in the alternative protein source is increasing, with the Good Food Institute (GFI) tipping the interconnected network that makes up the mass of many fungi varieties to be a leading trend in 2023.
Mycelium is a structure comprising root-like fungus that contains a mass of branching and thread-like hyphae. It contains fibre, vitamin D, and protein. If mushrooms are the fruiting part, mycelium represents the root-like network of fungi, which typically grow underground or inside trees. Using a fermentation process, manufacturers can take these mycelium structures to create meat-mimicking textures and whole cuts.
Mycelium producer, MyForest Foods, is one brand utilising mycelium by taking mushroom roots from the forest and growing them indoors to create whole pieces of plant-based meat.
In launching the US-based brand, it wanted to bring tasty meatless foods to market to feed the planet sustainably.
“Gourmet, wild mushrooms offer distinct, savoury, umami-rich flavours, while their mycelial “roots” naturally weave together, much like the network of muscle tissues in animals,” Sarah-Marie Cole, chief marketing officer at MyForest Foods, told Fi Global.
Patented tech to recreate meat
MyForest Foods forged a relationship with Ecovative, a mycelium technology company, and utilised its patented AirMycelium technology. Ecovative holds over 40 patents in 30 countries worldwide for solid-state fermentation and mycelium technology.
Through its platform technology, AirMycelium works by guiding geometrical mycelia patterns and utilising biological processes to produce various materials. MyForest Foods uses vertical farms to grow mycelium products at an industrial scale.
The technology provides MyForest Foods with a way to make natural foods that seek to replicate traditional meat’s organoleptic properties. Growing AirMycelium uses less water and land than conventional animal agriculture practices, Cole says.
Landing on mycelium manufacturing
Ecovative’s research and development (R&D) lab, the Mycelium Foundry, has created a network of mycelium divisions: Mushroom Packaging in 2008, MyForest Foods in 2020 and Forager Hides & Foams in 2022.
“Through the Foundry’s vast mycelium library, each division is equipped with a deep, biological understanding of fungi,” says Cole. Through this knowledge base, each team can amplify specific mushroom strains’ most useful natural properties to create food.
However, mycelium production to create plant-based foods cannot sacrifice flavour. Taste is paramount to satisfying consumers’ needs. “Many plant-based products have long ingredient lists; they rely on fillers and binders to create meat-like textures,” says Cole. MyForest Foods’ star ingredient, mycelium, provides the brand with a farm-grown, whole-cut advantage, while minimal, familiar ingredients accentuate its flavour.
Utilising pivotal and pioneering technologies
The vertical farming technology allows the brand to adjust several environmental factors to control the shape and density of mycelium as it grows. Introducing mycelium enables the brand to develop large structures that resemble — and can be sliced like—whole cuts of meat with a similar mouthfeel to chicken, fish, and bacon. After harvest, the brand slices its mycelium into strips and uses minimal ingredients to create its product’s flavour.
“Mycelium is grown on a special blend of wood chips and other plant materials,” says Adam Heinze, director of operations at MyForest Foods.
Replicating the environmental factors of the forest, the brand entices the mycelium to grow up and out of the substrate—towards the sky (hence the name AirMycelium). “We have fine-tuned and dialled in on just the right growth medium, air quality and water content to help our mycelium grow into dense, whole cuts that can be sliced just like meat,” says Heinze.
Growing the mycelium of coveted gourmet mushroom strains in vertical farms, the brand can produce the same desirable textures and flavours in natural gourmet mushrooms in faster time frames of 12 to 16 days versus 12 to 16 weeks.
Upcycling key ingredients
“A major element we upcycle is our substrate, mycelium’s growing medium,” says Cole. MyForest Foods uses byproducts from the hemp and forestry industry to create the substrate. The spent substrate has multiple uses, from soil remediation to creating fertilisers and composts.
To date, MyForest Foods’ farm-grown mycelium has applications in the pork alternative and soon-to-be beef alternative markets. Its flagship product is MyBacon, a plant-based bacon. MyJerky, a plant-based beef jerky derived from the same mycelium ingredient, will be rolled out in 2023. Cole describes the release of the brand’s second product as “our gateway to the beef alternative market”.
For MyBacon, the brand’s inaugural product, MyForest Foods introduced oyster mushroom mycelium to an optimal growing environment, replicating the forest’s conditions. MyBacon offers the taste and texture of traditional pork bacon using six ingredients: mycelium, salt, sugar, coconut oil, natural flavours, and beet juice for colour.
Since mycelium can be used to make a limitless variety of products, including beverages and meats, the brand continues to innovate and research. “We’re incredibly excited to add to the mix as our production and harvest capabilities continue to scale,” says MyForest Foods.