Cubiq Foods talks cell-cultured fat: New source of EPA and DHA could give fish oil, krill and algae a run for their money
Much of the media buzz around Cubiq Foods relates to its potential role in supplying the emerging cultured or ‘clean’ meat industry, given that many of the players have been more focused on muscle than fat cells, and one collaboration on this front is already underway, CEO Andrés Montefeltro told FoodNavigator-USA.
However, Cubiq’s first product - a fat with 50% DHA and 10% EPA - will target bakers and other manufacturers keen to supplement their foods with omega-3s, he said, noting that cell-cultured meat is still in the R&D phase, and does not represent a sizeable market opportunity for Cubiq over the next couple of years, at least.
A second product – dubbed Smart fat - could be used in small quantities to boost the flavor of products using low-fat vegetable or animal proteins, including cell-cultured meat.
A third platform is exploring designer fats that could be combined with coconut oil, canola, or other oils to replace palm oil, said Montefeltro, a molecular biologist who founded Cubiq last year with neuroscientist Dr Raquel Revilla and has just raised $13.6m from Spanish private equity firm Moira Capital Partners.
Cubiq: Long chain omega-3s from cell-cultured poultry fat are more affordable, and taste better
Although poultry fat does not typically contain high levels of EPA and DHA, Cubiq has developed a process that triggers poultry fat cells to produce significantly more of these coveted omega-3s, which Montefeltro claims taste better than fish oil, and can be produced more cheaply than omega-3s from algae or krill, making them more accessible to food and beverage companies making everything from cookies, snacks, and pizza to meat substitutes and infant formula.
“We alter the conditions to make the cells produce more DHA than normal, and then we concentrate it and microencapsulate it [so that it can be used in food applications]," said Montefeltro. "Based on the feeding of animals you can reach up-to 7% omega 3s in the form of linolenic acid mostly. We work on up-regulating this pathway to transform this into EPA and DHA."
“We are growing embryonic stem cells that we differentiate into adipocytes [fat cells] to produce adipose tissue [fat tissue]. Through this we can make little balls of adipose tissue that could be used in a cultured meat product such as hamburgers, or added to regular meat or [hybrid] plant-based meat products for flavor.
“But we’re also growing fat tissue that is high in omega-3 that we then extract and microencapsulate using new technologies so we can supply the baked goods industry – things like cookies – with a high quality omega-3 that doesn’t taste of fish or algae.
“We can go to the market as the same price as concentrated fish oil, which makes us more competitive than algae - without the fish oil flavor.”
Which cells does Cubiq Foods use and why?
But why start with poultry stem cells, as opposed to say, cells from cattle?
“We started with poultry because there is a lot of knowledge in poultry stem cell culture for vaccine production,” said Montefeltro. “We pick the cells from a fertilized egg, a few hours after laying, at which point there are only a few cells in the egg."
Unlike mesenchymal stem cells, which divide many times, but not indefinitely, the embryonic stem cells Cubiq is working with “are almost immortal,” which means you don’t have to go back to the source to procure more as often, said Montefeltro, who added that he is also avoiding using GMO techniques to immortalize other cell types because anything involving genetic engineering is a “no no in Europe.”
"The number of divisions is enough for our production plan (more than 20). Only cell lines are immortal."
As for patents, Cubiq is still deciding what approach to take, he said. “We will probably file a patent around a specific part of the process and may file a more important patent around the bioreactor we are using. The problem is, you file something and then 18 months later, everyone else can see what you’re doing and then people can come in and copy it.”
Cell cultured fat vs cell cultured meat
Cell cultured meat companies face significant technical hurdles if they want to create structured products with fat, muscle, and connective tissue organized in such a fashion that they mimic a steak for example. However, producing fat – at least on its own – from stem cells, is slightly easier, said Montefeltro.
“You don’t need as many resources to grow fat cells; they can even survive without oxygen for a while. We can make also make high quality fats without the need the scaffolding or mechanical stimulation [to stimulate muscle fibers, for example].”
Right now, the growth medium Cubiq is using contains some animal products (although it is not fetal bovine serum), but it is also working on an animal-free version, he said.
Armed with US$13.6m – a sizeable investment in the context of the cell-cultured meat space from Moira Capital Partners (only Memphis Meats has raised more), Cubiq is currently focused on building a new lab and pilot plant capable of producing several tons per year, and hiring new team members, said Montefeltro.
In the second phase, likely starting in 2021, Cubiq hopes to increase capacity to 700 tons per year.
“We’d like to start selling products in the US and Europe as soon as we have regulatory approval.”