Start-up champions new mushroom protein for unprocessed meat substitute

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Walding has developed 'mushroom filets' that can be fried, baked or grilled © Walding
Walding has developed 'mushroom filets' that can be fried, baked or grilled © Walding

Related tags mushrooms Meat alternatives start-up Germany

Fed up with the limited range of “really bland” and highly processed meat analogues available for vegans and vegetarians, a German start-up has developed plant-based chicken alternatives using a new protein source: the laetiporus mushroom.

German start-up Walding is taking on the “highly processed” ​meat analogue sector with a range of minimally processed, high protein alternatives to chicken and bacon.

Co-founder and CEO Alison Stille said she first became aware of a gap in the market for minimally processed meat alternatives while living in Berlin. “When you’re looking at a product to replace meat, you often only have the availability of products that are either really bland in taste or texture, or you have products that are very highly processed,” ​she told FoodNavigator.

And while the vegan burger patty market has surged in recent years, offering a growing number of plant-based alternatives, Stille dismissed these “quite artificial” ​products for containing “lots of different additives”​.

Walding is approaching the meat analogue sector from a different angle, thanks to its principle ingredient, the laetiporus mushroom.

“We didn’t sit down and think ‘how can we copy meat?’,” ​explained Stille. “We have a product that, by itself in a natural way, is a really good meat substitute and much more sustainable in production.”

High-protein ‘chicken of the woods’

Stille first discovered the laetiporus mushroom by chance, but its fibrous texture caught her attention: “It fit really well with what he had discovered already – that there is a need for products that are pure and sustainable,” ​she explained.

The laetiporus, otherwise known as ‘chicken of the woods’ is a rare tree mushroom that grows around rivers and on dead trees in a number of geographies, including Europe and the US.

The laetiporus mushroom, or 'chicken of the woods' is high in protein and vitamin D © Walding

Boasting a protein content of 21% - comparable to that of fish – and high vitamin D, the mushroom, according to Stille, “tastes like chicken”. ​Its fibrous structure also lends itself to meat imitation.

“After some research, we found out that it had never been produced on a commercial basis before, so we started developing methods to produce the mushroom. In 2017, we managed to cultivate it for the first time,” ​she continued.

The start-up grows the mushrooms in a lab from start to finish, in order to monitor its production and prevent contamination. It also means that Walding has complete control over the mushroom feed. The team is experimenting with different agricultural by-products, and plans to file a patent covering this process next week.

While also processed in laboratories, Stille was keen to differentiate between these organic, unprocessed fungi and ‘new age’ cellular proteins. “One should not neglect the fact that nature has a lot more to offer that we are using right now. So maybe we don’t need to sit down and grow meat in the lab as much as we do now, maybe we should try and find new paths.”  ​ 

Tastes like chicken

Walding’s range of products mimics the taste and texture of chicken, minced meat, and convenience items such as chicken nuggets. The start-up is in touch with supermarkets retailers, retailers, and street food markets in Germany, and is preparing to launch its first products online in Q4 of this year.

Walding's mushroom filets look similar to chicken breast, says CEO and co-founder Alison Stille © Walding

Walding’s “most important” ​product is its pure mushroom filets. At approximately 150g per filet, the product is comparable to the size of a chicken breast, but is in fact just slices of the laetiporus mushroom. “If you cut a chicken breast into slices, that is sort of what our product looks like,” ​explained Stille. The filets can be eaten fried, baked or grilled, and impart a “strong umami taste”.

The start-up has also developed a minced meat analogue, made out of “minced mushroom and nothing else”. ​What is particular to this meat substitute, according to Stille, is its unique texture. The minced mushrooms ‘sticks by itself’ to form burger patties or meatballs, or as a base for a plant-based bolognaise sauce.

“If you buy minced meat made from dried soy, for example, you’d have to add [binding] ingredients to it. But because of this mushroom’s texture, you don’t need any other proteins to bind it together,” ​we were told.

Walding’s convenience food range includes marinated and crumbed mushroom nuggets, made from mushroom chunks, and strips of plant-based bacon. “The mushroom is brined and smoked. It looks quite like bacon and tastes quite like bacon,” ​said Stille.

Next steps

The start-up has secured government funding through Germany’s Exist grant scheme and has now grown from a team of three founders to four. The company has also moved away from its working name ‘Woodchicken’ to ‘Walding’ – ‘Wald’ being the German word for ‘forest’ and ‘Ding’ meaning ‘thing’. The title also refers to the 1854 text by American author Harry David Thoreau, ‘Walden’. “It’s a book about leaving society behind and making the most of nature,” ​explained Stille.

Most recently, the company learned it had been accepted into EIT Food's accelerator hub programme in Munich. Along with 53 other agri-food start-ups, across five locations including Israel, Switzerland, Spain and the UK, Walding will benefit from infrastructure support, prototyping facilities, and business advice.

During the four-month course, Stille said she is “mostly interest in building contacts…to help with funding, and to help us avoid mistakes that other people have made.

“We hear lots of inspiring talks by successful companies that started out as start-ups, and I can really learn from them when it comes to founding processes, retail and funding. And obviously, it would be nice to win at the end,” ​she added. The top prize includes up to €20,000 in cash equivalent services.

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