Fungi Renaissance: While the Impossible and Beyond burgers are getting all the attention, a far more basic dish is set to lead the next wave of alternative proteins. Alternative proteins are gaining popularity. Plant-based burgers, bacon, sausages, and their imaginatively titled brethren: chickens, mylks, and cheeses abound on supermarket chiller shelves. The sale of meat alternatives in the UK increased from £582 million in 2014 to £816 million in 2019. And venture capital follows customers where they go. Alternative protein firms are expected to raise £2.2 billion in financing by 2020. Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat changed what customers expected from vegetarian burgers by unveiling their oozing, meaty, plant-based burgers, receiving over £600 million of that.
While fancy burgers are currently the stars of the alternative protein industry, a much more humble dish is gearing up for its time in the spotlight. The mushroom renaissance has arrived, and many businesses are poised to take this often-misunderstood food to new heights. It’s not new to turn fungus into protein. J. Arthur Rank, a British movie magnate turned grain baron, was looking for a way to turn all of his extra wheat into protein for human use in the mid-1960s. Rank’s scientists examined almost 3000 different fungi before discovering what they were seeking in a compost heap in a village just south of High Wycombe, England, on April 1, 1968. The fungus, eventually identified as Fusarium Venenatum, was ideal for Rank’s needs.
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It expanded quickly in fermenters, transforming into a tasteless lump of high-protein meal known as mycoprotein. By 1985, this mycoprotein had been certified for commercial use, but the first goods – a trio ofsavoryy pies –did not mentiong fungi on their labels. Instead, Quorn, the commercial name for this mycoprotein, was used. (A word about definitions: fungus is a broad term encompassing mushrooms, yeasts, andmoldss.) Mycoprotein is generally generated from the root-like threads below the ground.) Mushrooms are the fleshy aboveground body of a fungus, whereas mycoprotein is usually made from the root-like threads that reside below the ground.
Quorn was a bit of a slow cooker. Tim Finnigan, who joined Marlow Foods, the firm that created Quorn, in 1988, says, “This was very much a fundamental vegetarian meal.” “There was no genuine understanding of the concerns around food security and the fact that we needed answers – we needed healthy new proteins with low environmental impact,” he explains. The company didn’t turn a profit until 1998, and it moved around between huge food corporations and private equity firms throughout the years. Monde Nissin Corporation, based in the Philippines, is the current owner. The company makes noodles, crackers, and a jelly-based drink promoted as a stress reliever.
Despite its unpopularity, Quorn has managed to maintain a near-monopoly on mycoprotein production. Marlow Foods maintained patents on the fermentation technique used to make Quorn for more than two decades, and while those rights have now expired, the firm has a significant head start in producing mycoprotein on a large scale. Mycoprotein from Quorn is manufactured in 150,000-litre fermenters that transit the fungi in continual loops as they feed on a wheat-based sugar solution. The fungus is ready to be harvested at a pace of two tonnes per hour for 30 days after roughly four days.
The mycoprotein is then frozen, which causes the long strands of the mycoprotein to stick together, giving Quorn its distinctive chicken-like texture. The mycoprotein is then seasoned and processed intovariousf meat substitutes, including mince, fish fingers, kebabs, turkey dinosaurs, and – most famously – Gregg’s vegan sausage buns. However, a new generation of mycoprotein firms sees a future far beyond turkey dinosaurs. According to Ramkumar Nair, CEO of the Swedish company Mycorena, “Mycoprotein is becoming more of an element.” “We want to be a supplier of ingredients to any food company that wants to develop vegan products,” says the company. Even thought Quorn has a monopoly on direct-to-consumer mycoprotein sales, Nair’s strategy is to supply technology and ingredients to companies who wish to make their non-meat meats but lack the competence to do so. Mycorena has collaborated with Swedish companies to produce mycoprotein-based meatballs, sausages, and chicken nuggets thus far. Currently, the company is working on bacon, cold cuts, jerky, and protein balls.
Mycoprotein devotees argue that fermenting fungi offers several advantages over plant-based proteins like soy or pea protein. The meaty texture of mycoprotein derives from mycelia, which is a mass of branching, thread-like structures that fungi generate as they grow. Because plant-based proteins lack this structure naturally, they must undergo an additional processing step known as extrusion. Fermentation is also a low-cost method of producing protein; fungi require sugar to develop, but they aren’t necessarily picky about where they get it. Growing fungus using crops that would otherwise be thrown away is one possibility that mycoprotein companies are looking at. If they canlower the priceh to compete with soy, mycoprotein will become a far more appealing meat substitute element.
Choosing the appropriate fungus,s, to begin wit,h could be crucial. Nature’sFundd, based in Chicago,employsg a fungus strain found by its chief science officer in an acidic hot spring in Yellowstone National Park in the United States. Other mycoprotein firms use enormous bioreactors to cultivate their fungi. In contrast, Nature’ss Fynd produces its fungi in heated chambers piled with shallow trays, a low-footprint method the company claims is well-suited to urban manufacturing. Although the company’s vegetarian breakfast patties and dairy-free cream cheese have only been introduced in small quantities, it concluded a £250 million investment round in July 2021, making it the best-funded among the new crop of mycoprotein firms.
The promise of mycoprotein extends beyond meat replacements. In his fight against sugar, Alan Hahn is using fungus. “We’re trying to get sugar, salt, and fat out of foods,” says Myco Technology CEO Hahn. The Colorado-based business transforms fungus into a aflavorr enhancer that blocks bitter taste receptors on the tongue, reducing the unpleasant aftertaste of artificial sweeteners like aspartame. According to Hahn, the world is a small place. Bitterness is a major issue with plant-based proteins as well. Pea protein is frequently described as having a grassy, chalky flavor, which might make it difficult for food manufacturers to create delicious plant-based burgers. “It’s just obnoxious.” So that’s the task at hand.
“You have to disguise it if you’re a food manufacturer,” adds Hahn. Myco Technology discovered that fermenting pea protein with shiitake mushroom mycelia removes some unpleasant flavors and makes the final product easier to digest. The next step for Hahn is to go all-in on mycoprotein. The company is collaborating with an undisclosed country that imports most of its food to construct a factory where mycoprotein is produced on tropical fruit that would otherwise be thrown away. Hahn intends to increase mycoprotein output at his business in Denver, Colorado, to 20,000 metric tonnes per year. However, compared to worldwide meat output, which reached 340 million tonnes in 2019, 20,000 tonnes is a rounding error. “I believe we require various types of protein.
Animal-based protein, in my opinion, is required. Cultured proteins are required. “We require mycoprotein,” Hahn explains. Nair concurs. Even thought there are more mycoprotein firms today than five years ago, he believes there is enough unmet demand for them all to develop. He responds, “The pie is big enough for all of us to get a piece.” There is evidence that the food industry’s behemoths agree. Enough, a Scottish firm, announced in May 2021 that it would supply Unilever’s plant-based bran,d The Vegetarian Butcher,r with mycoprotein. Other companies claim that mycoprotein-based drinks, yogurts, and cheeses have undiscovered potential. There’s no limit to where fungi can go next for Finnigan as long as it tastes delicious. “It’s as easy as that,” he says, “if the meal isn’t nice, no one will buy it.”