A shroom with a view to conquering the food crisis
A recent McKinsey report has suggested that one method of building resilience in the food chain is to accelerate the development and adoption of alternative meat and smart proteins.
The report warns that the War in Ukraine – one of the world’s six “bread basket” regions – as well as heatwaves in India and dry summers in Western Europe – may lead to a deficit in wheat that could top 23 million to 40 million metric tonnes by the end of next year.
Despite the shortages, there’s also a lot of food waste out there: the UN calculates that roughly one-third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year – approximately 1.3 billion tonnes – gets lost or wasted.
But what if an alternative could be cultivated from protein which could also utilise grain stores or other food by-products that would otherwise have been disposed of?
It turns out that a couple of biotech start-ups doing the rounds at Slush last week are already on the case with alt-protein solutions to combat what soon could become a global crisis.
Interestingly, both are using lab-grown mushroom mycelium to create meat alternative products.
Mycelium, the root of a mushroom that absorbs nutrients underground and around it, is a natural fermenter and in controlled conditions can produce a satisfying meaty taste and texture.
Its qualities are making it something of a rockstar superfood in the alt-protein world right now.
German-based start-up Mushlabs claims to have developed a proprietary patented technology to grow mushroom mycelium which can be used to upcycle wasted food to create meat alternative products.
“Fungi are masters of upcycling,” explains Mushlabs co-founder and chief scientific officer Thibault Godard.
In his lab, the mycelium is cultivated in a submerged fermentation process. This way, relevant growth parameters can be controlled, resources used more effectively and aromas and textures changed in a targeted way, without the need for soil, pesticides, or fertilisers, the scientist explains.
The lab recently received an eight-digit figure from the EU’s EIC Accelerator adding to the $12.2m it has already received in funding, and it was at Slush largely to build up momentum and get its name out there – even performing a live cooking demo for investors.
“The upscaling to industrial level is almost complete and potential partners are being discussed. We have a unique story to tell,” proclaims its Lebanese founder Mazen Rizk, who has a PHD in Synthetic Biology at the Technical University of Hamburg.
“That’s one of the reasons why we want to develop and launch our own product brand,” he adds.
Right now, the brand is not exclusively vegan. Rizk did not explain what it was in the process that makes it non-vegan, but he replied in a statement: “Our first product will be vegetarian. We are continuously working to improve our recipe and hope at some point be able to offer a vegan product.”
MyShroom’s vegan ambitions
University of Helsinki’s stand at Slush was MyShroom – which is developing vegan food using fungi mycelium, with an emphasis on taste.
As associate professor Kirsi Mikkonen, who heads the project behind the MyShroom says: “Flavour is a key factor in choosing food products. Vegan food is chosen only if it tastes good and if its mouthfeel and composition are pleasing.”
Like Mushlabs, MyShroom’s lab-cultivated protein can also be used in food sidestreams generated by agriculture and the food supply chain. The idea for using the solution in food production originated in a vegan meal cooked at the University of Helsinki.
“We were utilising side streams in the project and producing novel bio-based raw materials for food packaging materials from fungal mycelium.
“Senior Laboratory Technician Jutta Varis – a vegan herself – cooked a delicious risotto from the protein for the research team, which engendered interest in the potential of using the protein in food,” explains Mikkonen. Last month the project officially entered its pilot stage.
Other funded fungis
Other mycelium-based start-ups include Tel Aviv-based Mush Foods, which is using fermentation and AI to efficiently produce the fungi, which it says could make everything from plant-based dairy to vegan steak tastier, healthier, and more sustainable.
Colorado-based Meati Foods, meanwhile, offers fungi-powered mycelium jerky and whole-cut vegan chicken breast while in New York, Atlast Food Company hopes to bring home the (pigless) bacon following a $40m food round last year.
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