In this post, we’ll deep dive into the history of mycelium-based protein and explore how a decades-old technology is disrupting the alternative protein industry.
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The alternative protein industry represents a rich innovation landscape, encompassing everything from animal cell cultivation to 3D printing. Amid the array of novel proteins increasingly available, how is mycoprotein, a fungi-based meat alternative, distinct?
One reason is taste— paramount in consumer food choices. Mycoprotein has a slight umami flavor and a texture similar to cooked chicken. As a result of the mild to nonexistent flavor profile, it can be used as a blank canvas for taste, and it mimics the consistency of meat with lower fat and saturated fat profiles than conventional proteins.
Additionally, fungi (from which mycoprotein is derived) are relatively easy to grow in controlled environments, and their protein and enzyme output are efficient and greater than yeast and bacteria — both regarded as powerhouses in the alternative protein realm.
Finally, the fermentation process (utilised to produce mycoprotein) is relatively low-intensity, providing an environmentally benign high-protein food source. For instance, comparing Quorn mycoprotein grounds with beef reveals ≥10 times less embedded carbon, land, and water use.
The production of mycoprotein is straightforward. The process involves fermenting the fungi with food-grade ingredients needed for growth, such as sugars and nutrients (similar to how beer is made).
The fungi mycelium is then (usually) heat-treated, centrifuged, and recovered. The resulting paste is mycoprotein. Using binding agents, the mycoprotein paste can be flavoured and shaped to achieve the desired taste and texture.
Emerging companies are exploring alternative methods for producing mycoprotein. For instance, MyForest Foods, located in the United States, is one of the few fungi-based companies employing solid-state fermentation. They grow the mycelium in indoor vertical farms, resulting in whole-cut pieces of food.
The building blocks of mycoprotein, fungi, exist in fossil records dating back approximately 900 million years. The best molecular evidence suggests that fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants (though they categorically belong to neither group).
However, a primary component in many fungi's cell walls is chitin, a main component found in the shells of crustaceans such as crabs, shrimp, and lobster, leading some fungi enthusiasts down never-ending rabbit holes, exploring the exact nature of fungi.
Historically believed to be part of the plant kingdom, fungi have only recently (mid-20th century) been recognized as a ubiquitous 'Third Kingdom.' The fascination with fungi has resulted in a myriad of innovations — including problem-solving methods for the future of food.
Post World War II, concerns about the future of global food supply led to the (often contentious) innovations of the Green Revolution. Projections in population increase and anxieties around food shortages inspired scientists to explore opportunities for alternative proteins — leading to research into the protein-rich world of fungi and an in-depth screening of over 3,000 fungal species.
Though developed in the 1960s, Quorn was the first to coin 'mycoprotein' to describe their fungal-derived protein ingredient after the UK Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food approved the product for food use in the mid-1980s. In 2002, the US FDA designated mycoprotein as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe).
Fermentation technology, the pathway to mycoprotein production, experienced growing investment in 2021. Fermentation companies producing alternative proteins raised 1.69 Billion in 2021 (3x the amount raised in 2020), and industry projections suggest that mycoprotein market value may reach US$ 948.86 Million By 2029.
The emerging mycoprotein industry has been bolstered by several recent collaborations and funding rounds, including Tempty's collaboration with Marlow Foods (marking the first time Quorn products are available B2B), and Enough’s recent 40 million funding round.
Although mycoprotein has been around for decades, the following companies are bringing new life to the field. Whether it's mycelium-based bacon or versatile mycoprotein ingredients for plant-based meals, the sector is full of innovators embracing fungi to bring consumers a more delicious and meat-free future.
Check out the Protein Directory for even more companies working on mycoprotein!
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