Alternative proteins are booming. Supermarket chiller shelves are crammed with plant-based burgers, bacon, sausages, and their creatively named comrades: chik’ns, mylks, and sheezes. In the UK alone, the sale of meat substitutes grew from £582 million ($800 million) in 2014 to £816 million ($1.1 billion) in 2019. And where customers are going, venture capital is following. In 2020, alternative protein companies raised £2.2 billion ($3.1 billion) in funding. Nearly £600 million ($700 million) of that went to Impossible Foods, the company that—along with Beyond Meat—redefined what people expected from veggie burgers with the release of their oozing, beefy, plant-based burgers.
Fancy burgers might be the current stars of the alternative protein scene, but a much more humble foodstuff is getting ready for its moment in the spotlight. The fungi renaissance is here— and a clutch of startups are ready to take this much-misunderstood food to a whole new level.
Turning fungi into protein isn’t novel. In the mid-1960s, a British movie mogul turned flour baron named J. Arthur Rank was looking for a way to turn all his excess wheat into protein for human consumption. Rank’s scientists analyzed more than 3,000 different fungi, but on April 1, 1968, they found what they were looking for in a compost heap in a village just south of High Wycombe in England. The fungus—later identified as *Fusarium Venenatum*—fitted Rank’s requirements perfectly. It grew easily in fermenters, turning into a relatively flavorless hunk of high-protein food called mycoprotein. By 1985 this mycoprotein was approved for sale, but the first products—a trio of savory pies—studiously avoided mentioning fungi on their packaging. Instead this mycoprotein was referred to by its brand name: Quorn. (A quick word on definitions: Fungi is a broad group that includes mushrooms, yeasts, and molds. Mushrooms are the fleshy aboveground body of a fungus, but mycoprotein is usually made out of the rootlike threads that live below the ground.)
Quorn was something of a slow burner. “This was very much a core vegetarian food,” says Tim Finnigan, who joined Marlow Foods, the company that makes Quorn, in 1988. “There was no real sense of the issues around food security and that we needed solutions—we needed healthy new proteins with a low environmental impact,” he says. The business didn’t make a profit until 1998, and over the decades the brand bounced between big food conglomerates and private equity groups. Its current owner is Monde Nissin Corporation, a Philippines-based firm that manufactures noodles, crackers, and a jelly-based drink marketed as a way to protect against stress.
Despite its somewhat underloved status, Quorn has maintained a near-monopoly on mycoprotein production. For 20 years, Marlow Foods held patents over the fermentation process used to produce Quorn, and although those patents are now expired, the company has had a big head start in producing mycoprotein at an industrial scale. Quorn’s mycoprotein is brewed in 150,000-liter fermenters which shuttle the fungi in constant loop-de-loops while they feed on a sugar solution made from wheat. After about four days, the fungi is ready to be harvested at a rate of two tons every hour for the next 30 days. The mycoprotein is then frozen, which pushes its long strands together, giving Quorn its characteristic chicken-like texture. From here, the mycoprotein is flavored and processed to turn it into any one of a long list of meat analogs: mince, fish fingers, kebabs, turkey dinosaurs, and—famously—Gregg’s vegan sausage rolls.
But a new wave of mycoprotein companies envisage a future far beyond turkey dinosaurs. “Mycoprotein is becoming more of an ingredient,” says Ramkumar Nair, CEO of Swedish company Mycorena. “We aim to be a supplier of ingredients to all of the food companies that want to make vegan products.” Although Quorn has cornered the market on direct-to-consumer mycoprotein sales, Nair’s plan is to provide technology and ingredients to companies that want to create their own non-meat meats but don’t have the expertise to create them in-house. So far Mycorena has partnered with Swedish brands to release mycoprotein-based meatballs, sausages, and chicken nuggets. The company is now busy developing bacon, cold cuts, jerky, and protein balls.
Acolytes of mycoprotein point out that fermenting fungi has some big advantages over plant-based proteins such as soy or pea protein. Mycoprotein’s meaty texture comes from mycelia: the mass of branching, threadlike structures that fungi form when they grow. Plant-based proteins don’t have this structure naturally, so they typically go through an additional processing step called extrusion. Fermentation is also a cost-effective way of growing protein; fungi need a source of sugar to grow on, but they’re not always fussy about where it comes from. One option that mycoprotein firms are exploring is growing fungi using crops that would otherwise be thrown away. If they can get the price down low enough to compete with soy, then mycoprotein will suddenly look like a much more attractive ingredient for meat substitutes.
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Finding the right fungi to start with could prove vital. Chicago-based Nature’s Fynd is using a strain of fungi that its chief science officer discovered in an acidic hot spring in Yellowstone National Park in the United States. While other mycoprotein companies use large bioreactors, Nature’s Fynd grows its fungi in heated chambers stacked with shallow trays—a low-footprint way of growing mycoprotein that the company says makes it well-suited to urban factories. Although the company has only released limited amounts of its meatless breakfast patties and dairy-free cream cheese, in July 2021 it completed a £250 million ($347 million) funding round, making it the best-funded of the new wave of mycoprotein startups.
Mycoprotein’s potential doesn’t stop at meat substitutes. Alan Hahn is employing fungi in the fight against sugar. “We’re focused on driving sugar, salt, and fat out of foods,” says Hahn, CEO of MycoTechnology. The Colorado-based company turns fungi into a flavor enhancer that blocks bitter taste receptors on the tongue, taking the edge off the unpleasant aftertaste that’s associated with artificial sweeteners such as aspartame. The flavor enhancer is already being used in more than 100 beverages around the world, Hahn says.
Bitterness is also a big problem with plant-based proteins. Pea protein is often described as having a grassy, chalky taste which can cause a headache for food companies trying to make palatable plant-based burgers. “It’s just nasty. So that’s the challenge. If you’re a food company then you have to mask it,” says Hahn. MycoTechnology has found that fermenting pea protein alongside the mycelia of shiitake mushrooms takes away some of those unpalatable flavors and makes the end result easier to digest.
Hahn’s next move is to go all-in on mycoprotein itself. The company is partnering with an unnamed country that imports most of its food to build a factory where mycoprotein is grown on tropical fruit that would otherwise be wasted. At his factory in Denver, Colorado, Hahn hopes to ramp up production to 20,000 metric tons of mycoprotein every year. But even 20,000 tons is a rounding error when it comes to global meat production, which stood at 340 million tons in 2019. “I think we need all forms of protein. I think we need animal-based protein. We need cultured proteins. We need mycoprotein,” says Hahn.
Nair agrees. Even though there are more mycoprotein companies today than five years ago, he says that there’s enough unserviced demand out there for them all to grow. “The pie is big enough for us all to get a share,” he says. There are signs that food giants agree. In May 2021, Scottish company Enough announced that it would supply mycoprotein to Unilever’s plant-based brand The Vegetarian Butcher. Other brands point to the untapped potential in mycoprotein-based drinks, yogurts, and cheeses. For Finnigan, as long as it tastes good, there’s no limit to where fungi can go next. “If the food’s no good, then no one’s going to buy it, it’s as simple as that,” he says.
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.
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