Meet the start-up converting wood into food grade protein: ‘We are expanding the definition of what a food crop is’

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Arbiom wants to take on the staple crops currently used in plant-based innovation such as wheat and soy / Pic: GettyImages-Barmalini
Arbiom wants to take on the staple crops currently used in plant-based innovation such as wheat and soy / Pic: GettyImages-Barmalini

Related tags Fermentation plant-based Protein

Arbiom is a start-up developing solutions to convert timber by-products into food and feed ingredients. The group recently unveiled its first protein ingredient, SylPro. We caught up with the company to find out more about its technology and commercialisation strategy.

The world is facing a protein challenge. By 2050, the global population could total around 9bn people. With rising affluence and a growing middle class, the demand for protein is expected to increase substantially. Indeed, the FAO forecasts a doubling of demand through to 2050.

Meeting this increase within environmental limits is one of the biggest tests faced by the food system. The livestock industry already contributes 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The protein sector is squeezed between the drive to reach net zero emissions by 2050 – required if global warming is to be contained at 1.5 above pre-industrial levels – and the need to drastically scale up production over the same period.

Food tech innovator Arbiom believes it can be part of the solution.

Speaking to FoodNavigator, Ricardo Ekmay, Senior Vice President of Nutrition & Product Development, said that current answers to this issue – which focus largely around boosting efficiency in one way or another – fail to get to the heart of the issue. They don’t ‘make the pie bigger’.

“If we look at the current strategies for protein production one thing is clear. We need to produce more protein in terms of total volume. A lot of the strategies for meeting that goal centre around gaining efficiencies around the distribution of that current production.

“If you look at it as a pie, the pie doesn't get any bigger… If we directly consume the plant proteins instead of going through an animal, or we make crop production more efficient, it still doesn't tackle the main question of did we make the pie bigger.”

GettyImages-Bobex-73 pulses legumes peas field
Shifting to plant-based protein and increasing crop yields will only get us so far in the drive for sustainable protein, tech start-up Arbiom believes / Pic: GettyImages-Bobex-73

Arbiom has developed a technology that it says can achieve just that.

“The most logical approach to make the pie bigger is increasing the definition of a food crop so we're not diverting soy from animal feed to human production, which is still producing the same amount of protein. Now we're increasing the amount of protein being produced.

“We see that as a fundamental area that needs to be addressed, not just in terms of gaining efficiencies within our current production system, but finding ways to expand definition of arable land, expanding the definition of what a food crop is.”

Turning wood-waste into protein

Arbiom leverages wood residue from the forestry sector as a ‘natural solution’ to expand that definition.

According to Business Development Director Emily Glenn, lignocellulosic biomass is an ‘undervalued resource’. While ‘robust’ supply chains in the forestry sector allow a year-round source of consistent high quality wood, when this reaches the timber mill production processes result in a by-product, wood residue, that is ‘in many cases’ simply burned for its energy value.

To Arbiom this offeres a ‘unique position in the alternative protein space’. The company is able to upcycle this side-stream via a process of fermentation that sees yeast converted into a ‘traceable protein ingredient’.

The tech taps the ‘natural genetic potential of these microorganisms’ and the company steers clear of using either GMOs or processing aids.

Ekmay elaborated: “You're looking at two stages. One takes the wood feed stock and breaks it down into simpler molecules. These molecules can then be fermented by yeast, or can be consumed by the yeast. Once the yeast has grown and has consumed those sugars or these molecules, we separate it from any residual media that would be present that starting feedstock. That is just a pure liquid solid separation.”

The yeast biomass is then dried. “There is no chemical extraction or resolving process. There is no processing aid added to facilitate increasing the protein content or anything of that nature. It's a very straightforward process where the protein content and quality a natural process from the yeast itself.”

The fermentation process is highly efficient. Compared to other conventional plant and animal proteins, SylPro has ‘the lowest GHG emissions per kilogram’, the company claimed.

wood forest iStock
Fermentation can turn a forestry side-stream into protein / Pic: iStock

Proof is in the [meat analogue] pudding

Arbiom has just developed its first proof-of-concept study to evaluate its protein ingredient, SylPro, for use in human food applications and existing meat alternative products.

In the study, SylPro was used in meat analogue prototypes in place of conventional plant-based protein ingredients including soy, pea and wheat. This was achieved ‘without compromising taste or product quality’, according to the company.

Describing the yeast-based protein as delivering an umami flavour, Ekmay said that initial prototyping confirmed SylPro could ‘replace a lot of the plant protein functionalities’, including binding and emulsification properties.

The ingredient offers around 55% protein content in terms of ‘current product targets’, Glenn told us. “It’s a highly digestible form of protein and amino acids: 95% crude protein digestibility and all amino acids above 90. We are on a base level comparable to soy protein isolates, high protein, high quality products, and approaching animal proteins or milk proteins in terms of quality,”​ Ekmay added.

Moving to market: Regulatory hurdles in US and EU

In the next phase of Arbiom’s plan, the group hopes to move its ingredient to market. The US-based company is targeting expansion in both its domestic market and Europe.

In both jurisdictions, the group does not anticipate regulatory approval will prove a break to its expansion ambitions.

“The microorganism itself has GRAS status [in the US]. We are vetting whether the feedstock introduces novelty to the product… Our expectation is that it doesn't because there's some historicity to using wood as a feedstock for food," ​Ekmay revealed. 

Likewise, in Europe the company does not expect to have to go through the time-consuming Novel Foods application process. “The microorganism itself isn't going to pose a challenge. There is an existing food definition for this yeast. That food definition appears to be agnostic towards the feed stock.”

Gledd noted that the start-up is also developing a second commercialisation strategy that could see it license out its technology, bringing ‘both the process and product’ to market.

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