Beyond plants: Is the future in microbial protein?

29 Mar 2020

Plant proteins may be among the hottest topics in the food industry right now, but another group of alternative proteins is emerging, based on microbial sources, such as algae, fungi and bacteria.

Startups working to scale up the production of non-plant and non-animal alternative proteins highlight distinct benefits, including an often superior nutritional profile, as well as the obvious environmental advantages of foods that do not rely on traditional agricultural inputs. Researchers have pointed out that environmental disasters, like drought or flood, are unlikely to disrupt the production of microbial proteins, making them some of the most climate-proof foods on the planet, and they also tend to require far less water than either meat or plant-derived alternatives.

Beyond plants: Is the future in microbial protein?
Alternative sources of protein could open the door to more eco-friendly meat alternatives

Quorn is the best-known fungi-based protein product on the market at the moment, but a handful of startups is entering the space, as they answer consumer calls for less processed high quality protein ingredients. US-based companies Emergy Foods and Prime Roots, for instance, both make fungi-based meat alternatives that are at least as high in protein and higher in fibre than meat, while also providing many of the vitamins and minerals found in plants. And in Europe, Swedish startup Mycorena aims to work with food manufacturers to grow high value fungi-based protein using industry side streams, such as waste from sugar beet processing.

Algae has been on the radar as an alternative protein source for several years, and major food companies are beginning to show an interest. Nestlé, for instance, has partnered with US-based ingredient firm Corbion to develop the next generation of microalgae for food. Nestlé says the collaboration combines its experience in plant-based products with Corbion’s expertise in microalgae and fermentation. Meanwhile, Corbion is keen to leverage Nestlé’s ability to fast-track its microalgae ingredients into a range of products for large global markets.

Other companies active in microalgae for its protein content include Triton Algae Innovations, a US-based startup making algae-derived ingredients for meat alternatives. Among its ingredients, it has created an algae-based heme, which it hopes will rival the soy-derived heme used in Impossible Burgers to mimic the taste of meat. Netherlands-based Phycom also uses microalgae in meat alternatives for its protein content, as well as for its flavouring and binding properties.

At a much earlier stage, biotechnology companies are exploring the potential of proteins derived from fermentation, made with genetically engineered yeasts and bacteria – and interest is high. US-based Motif Ingredients, for instance, launched in early 2019 with $90 million of series A funding from major companies like Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Louis Dreyfus Company, Fonterra, and Viking Global Investors. It aims to provide ‘next generation’ alternative proteins for the food industry that are identical to those derived from meat, egg and dairy.

Proteins beyond those derived from plants and animals have attracted significant attention from researchers as demand for alternative proteins continues to grow, but these will only take off if industry can be convinced of their commercial potential. Investments from major food industry players suggests that some could enter the mainstream within the next few years.

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