Fermentation: The New Game-Changer For Alternative Proteins? – Forbes


Meat, eggs, and dairy—primarily from factory farms—has historically been the main source of protein for people in high-income countries. But some consumers are becoming increasingly intolerant of its carbon footprint, health consequences, and inherent animal cruelty.

In response, the quest for more ethical ways to incorporate vegan foods in our diet is heating up, particularly in Silicon Valley.

You’re likely familiar with the plant-based meat space, led by companies like Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, and Quorn, now available at many of your local fast food chains and supermarkets. Then there’s cell-cultured meat—real meat grown from animal cells rather than slaughtered animals. (While it’s currently on sale in Singapore only, it may not be long before the U.S. jumps on board.)

But now, scientists are figuring out how to make animal protein without using any animal cells at all – by using fermentation. As journalist Larissa Zimberoff notes in her new book Technically Food, “We don’t have to look far to find examples of it in the food we eat,” such as rennet in cheesemaking—an enzyme used to coagulate milk, which we used to get from the stomach lining of young calves.

Fermentation is a centuries-old process that uses microbes, such as yeast or fungi, to break down a compound, such as sugar, and create a by-product, like alcohol – or, in this case, protein.

Combining various fermentation techniques with modern technology is enabling biotech companies to create proteins that rival those in animal products. And they are poised to seriously challenge the industrial meat, egg, and dairy industries.

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Jon McIntyre, chief executive of food technology company Motif, wants to use fermentation to improve the nutritional value of vegan alternatives. 

“In most of today’s plant-based foods, there’s a gap between nutritional value and the quality of ingredients used; that’s because many current products use high levels of fats and oils to make their plant-based products taste better, and the quality of their plant-protein amino-acids are lacking,” he says. “Taste and texture are an extremely important part of this equation. It doesn’t matter how healthy plant-based foods are if no one eats them. Through fermentation and other processes, we’re uncovering completely new ways to improve the taste, texture and nutrition of plant-based foods.”

San Francisco-based food technology company Clara Foods is also motivated to help meet the dietary needs of a growing population, says Arturo Elizondo, co-founder and chief executive.

Clara Foods has developed a fermentation process that creates animal-free egg proteins.

“Using this process, we can maintain the same taste and functionality of the original product – which is where many plant-based alternatives see challenges,” Elizondo says.

The process isn’t always straightforward, but those operating in the space say it’s worth the time invested to find the fermentation process that suits them best.

Perfect Day Foods creates animal proteins whey and casein without using animal cells.

All proteins have genes, which are specific sequences of DNA, and all organisms can understand the same genetic code. To create an animal-free version of milk proteins, the company introduced animal genes, which they found catalogued in online scientific databases, to another organism.

“We gave our microflora the genetic ‘blueprint’ from the genes we accessed online, providing it the ability to produce real milk proteins — identical to the ones found in cows’ milk,” says bioengineer Ryan Pandya, Perfect Day’s chief executive and cofounder.

This flora then grazes on plant-based inputs, like sugar, and naturally produces milk proteins that are free from lactose, cholesterol, hormones and antibiotics.

“The result is a protein identical to milk protein, packing more nutrition per gram than anything else we know of, and performing exactly as you’d expect in traditional dairy processes and recipes,” he says.

Taste and experience are the starting points for Motif, which focuses on both meat and dairy alternatives.

“First, we analyze the sensory experience of the animal-based product,” says McIntyre. “Then, we identify the ingredients that are key to that sensory experience.”

The company then uses technology to identify a protein that provides the best taste and color to match, for example, a burger, and designs microbial factories that can produce it.

“We replicate the ingredient using natural fermentation processes and the assistance of these specially-designed microbes.”

Then there’s Bond Pet Foods, which is focused on making more sustainable, responsible, and humane protein for pets. It makes protein by inserting genes from chicken muscle into yeast, and feeding sugar to the yeast to create chicken muscle proteins.

“Most plant proteins are either incomplete in their essential amino acid composition for dogs and cats, or possess anti-nutritional factors that can prevent absorption,” says co-founder and chief executive Rich Kelleman.

Fermentation is a relatively low-risk process, since the method has been around for so long. This means companies operating in the emerging space of growing animal proteins using fermentation already have their sights set on scaling up and forcing real change across the food industry. Many of them are working with other businesses, to offer the same products, made differently.

Clara Foods, for example, partners with distributor Ingredion to reach businesses that need its ingredients on a larger scale, and consumer-facing brands that can use its products in animal-free products.

“The technology we leverage has been used for decades to make everything from the insulin used to treat diabetes, to the rennet used to make over 90% of the cheese in the US.; we’ve simply discovered a new way to use it,” says Elizondo. “To best achieve scale, we use processes that are most similar to what’s used at scale today by big breweries so we can partner with companies anywhere in the world to have the greatest impact.”

Pandya says Perfect Day’s mission is to change the process, rather than the food.

“We recognized that, to give companies the ability to meet the consumer demand for [better] options, we needed to give them a way to offer products that matched the taste and texture of their traditional offerings in a way plant-based alternatives can’t.”

Perfect Day’s partners with food and dairy companies, and currently has three partners creating ice cream with its animal-free whey protein.

“We give food brands familiar ingredients made with an innovative twist to deliver the same creamy, melty, silky enjoyment as dairy while meeting consumer demands for more sustainable, animal-friendly products,” Pandya says. “Our ingredients are highly customizable and seamlessly fit into existing manufacturing processes.”

Now that the company has invested in technology, and is gradually scaling up production, it hopes to eventually compete with the commodity dairy industry on cost.

Motif hopes costs will continue to decrease, and people will soon be willing to pay a premium price for its products.

“The cost associated with using fermentation will go down as technology becomes more efficient, but we’re just starting to see it take off in the plant-based space,” says McIntyre. “This year, we’ll see the general public continue to become more informed and open to food science than ever before, so long as plant-based food innovators continue to provide more transparency around their products and, in the process, bring consumers better, tastier plant-based options.”

Managing public perception is a less charted area, however – much like cell-cultured meat start-ups have found. But there will be questions and uncertainties from consumers around how proteins made from fermentation, particularly around safety. 

One focus of Perfect Day’s messaging is explaining to people with a dairy allergy that its milk is molecularly identical to the milk proteins produced by cows, so it contains milk allergens.

“Our biggest area of concern is eliminating consumer confusion around animal-free versus dairy-free,” says Pandya. “Because this is the first time in the history of dairy that actual cow’s milk proteins have been produced in something other than a cow, there’s understandable confusion.”

When Bond Pet Foods launched its first product last year, the business made efforts to educate consumers about products made through fermentation. 

“Meat protein produced through fermentation is a novel concept, and education and transparency in how it works will be critical to achieve broad public acceptance,” says Kelleman. “As we move forward in our discovery and get closer to commercialization, we will spotlight the process in depth, as well as nutritional information that demonstrates the protein’s performance, safety and efficacy.”

But Stephanie Michelsen, co-founder and chief executive of Jellatech, which uses cellular agriculture rather than fermentation to produce collagen and gelatin from animal cells – a process that, for the last 300 years, has relied on boiling animal’s carcasses, skin, bones and hooves – argues that a fully animal-free based approach would require years of engineering to achieve similar results.

“There are just some things from the animal kingdom that cannot be replaced from elsewhere,” she says, “and collagen is of them.”

Start-ups making protein from fermentation face some of the challenges facing many emerging innovations – but they have the benefit of using tried and tested processes that people recognize and trust. It’s no wonder, therefore, that those pushing innovation in this space are confident they can reduce the use of animals in the food chain. Their work may start with single molecules – but they have grand visions.

“We aim to create a kinder, greener tomorrow,” says Pandya, “by developing new ways to make the foods you love today.”