‘It is the next logical step of the food transition’: How fermentation can help solve the ‘protein crisis’

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Will re-thinking an age-old production technique shape the future of food? / Pic: GettyImages AleksandarNacik
Will re-thinking an age-old production technique shape the future of food? / Pic: GettyImages AleksandarNacik

Related tags Fermentation precision fermentation biomass fermentation Protein alternative protein

Fermentation is likely to be a key technology supporting the transition towards higher consumption of alternative proteins, with protein conversion efficiency driving impact.

Fermentation has been used to make food and drink for millennia, with traditional fermentation used in products from bread to beer. But the next generation of fermented ingredients – produced by biomass fermentation or precision fermentation – are emerging as a technological platform that can help feed the world’s growing demand for alternatives to animal proteins.

Proponents of the technology believe fermentation offers the opportunity to fundamentally change how food is produced, unlocking the potential to improve human and planetary health.

Rethinking resource efficiency

“We’ve got a protein crisis. There is a requirement for a protein transition. With 25% of carbon coming from food, we need resource efficiency to find something more sustainable,”​ according Jim Laird, CEO of biomass fermentation company ENOUGH.

“For me, the test of efficiency or sustainability is that combination of, firstly, the fundamentals of resource in and resource out and, secondly, how that converts to cost, labour and capital,”​ he said last month at FoodNavigator’s Climate Smart Food​ conference.

Laird and ENOUGH believe that this boils down to how efficiently inputs – in the form of feed – are converted into protein. The ‘exciting bit’ for fermentation is that it ‘beats’ competitive alternatives from animal protein, to pant-based or insect protein. “The cow is 10-to-1 the chicken is 3-to-1 and fermentation is 1-to-1. That’s where it gets super exciting. We use a kilogram of feed stock and make more than a kilogram of wet protein. That’s where fermentation wins and where impact at scale can come into its own.”

The story is similar for precision fermentation. Raffael Wohlgensinger is founder and CEO of Formo – a company that leverages precision fermentation to make dairy proteins, casein and whey, without the cow.

“Precision fermentation is using fermentation as a means to produce any target chemical or compound, in our case milk proteins. What we are doing is working with microorganisms, yeast, bacteria, fungal systems, that can convert the nutrients that we feed them into targeted proteins that we want,” ​he explained. “It’s really a very targeted way of converting nutrients into something that is very functional and similar – or identical - to the proteins you would find in milk.”

Formo dairy protins can be made into fresh or aged cheeses
Formo dairy protins can be made into fresh or aged cheeses / Pic: Formo

The dairy sector has a considerable impact on climate change due to the greenhouse gasses – such as methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide - that are emitted during production. Dairy farms also use considerable land and water resources, with two-thirds of the world’s agricultural land used to maintain crops. Feed production in some places contributes to the conversion of land to agricultural cultivation.  

Wohlgensinger believes fermentation offers a different, more efficient, future for dairy protein production. “At the very high level, we use cows today that we feed. They convert the nutrients into things that we want, milk protein. Instead of having the cow, which is a microorganism that is very intensive to sustain… we use microorganisms that are much easier to deal with. They don’t use as much feed, they have a better nutrient conversion efficiency. When we speak about cows and dairy, they roughly have a protein conversion rate of 4-10% and microorganisms are 60-80%. The microorganisms are a superior technology or protein conversion process compared to cows.”

Improving resource efficiency can also mean looking beyond traditional sources of food and leveraging side streams and waste for protein production. This is an area that fermentation start-up Arbiom is working in. The company leverages side streams from the forestry industry to produce a protein ingredient that can be used in human nutrition.

“We are all trying to make the food and feed system more efficient, to get some savings in terms of resources,”​ Arbiom CEO Marc Chevrel told the event. “Fermentation can be a great tool in that because you can use a lot of different feed stocks. We are trying not to use a general crop feedstock – sugar can be used in some cases – but rather to go for undervalued, under-used feedstocks like agricultural residues or forestry residues that can be used as a raw material for our microorganisms to grow.”

In this way, Arbiom is not only increasing the efficiency of how resources traditionally used in the food sector are leveraged, the company is effectively pushing the limits of what we would consider a food input. “Focusing on the feedstock and making sure you are not [diverting] precious resources [from other food uses] is very important,”​ Chevrel suggested. “We are bringing a non-food plant into the food chain. The food chain always starts with plants – but we are using a sourcing material that isn’t part of the food chain right now. We are bringing the most abundant plant material into the food chain, which contributes to making the pie bigger.”

Fermenting for functionality

Fermentation technology also allows food innovators to develop proteins that deliver on various functionalities. The process, Wohlgensinger suggested, could allow people to ‘make proteins that are even more functional’ than their conventional counterparts. This could help alleviate a bottle-neck that has emerged in plant-based protein innovation.

“A soy protein, where you can produce 500g per co2 equivalent, is really good in terms of efficiency and sustainability. But when it comes to functionality compared to some of the animal counterparts, it cannot keep up. Consumers at the end of the day want products they know and like. That has a lot to do with functionality,”​ he contended.

Jasmin Ravid, CEO of Israeli fermentation start-up Kinoko-Tech, agrees that fermented ingredients can help deliver functional benefits that plant-based formulations can sometimes struggle with. She also noted that fermentation can help meet consumer demand for less processed, cleaner labels.

“When we looked at the plant-based market, most solutions are going in the direction of processed products. If you want to mimic something else with plant-based ingredients, you need to do a lot of processing,”​ she told us. “You take everything apart and combine it back together to create something that is supposed to be like animal-based products, which is really great and the market wants it. But we aim to do something different. We wanted to create a product that is more natural. An alternative protein that is grown and not produced and we wanted to use the fungi in its natural state,”​ she noted. This approach delivers an ingredient with a fibrous texture and umami flavour.

ENOUGH also leverages fungi to grow its mycoprotein ingredient ABUNDA. This not only represents a source of protein – it delivers something that a chicken doesn’t… Fibre. “Natural and protein and fibre together is a real asset,”​ Laird said.

ABUNDA is a wet protein that consists of protein and fibre / Pic: ENOUGH

ENOUGH has used its mycoprotein in meat- and fish-style applications and the company has done ‘some work’ in dairy alternatives. It is a wet protein that consists of 25% solids and 75% moisture. Looking at the solid component, two-thirds is protein and one-third is fibre.

“The question of functionality comes back to the triumvirate of cost - lower cost than the animal, taste – taste as good as the animal, and convenience – which means grown locally in any region of the world to address food security and sustainability,”​ the group’s  chief executive suggested.

“The consumer demand for great tasting vegan products is there. The natural impediment we’ve got is, if we don’t taste as good as and cost not more than, we’re putting barriers in the way of consumers.”

Consumer acceptance of fermentation tech

While fermented proteins might boast some natural health benefits, Laird doesn’t think this is the main purchase driver for shoppers. “I don’t think it is the top consumer question. I think that is, does it deliver a great tasting food?”

For this reason, Laird backs a ‘flavour first’ message. “Technology has to come second. I don’t think fermentation is an impediment to the consumer, but I don’t think the technology is what the consumers want to hear. ENOUGH made a mistake for a long time in talking a lot about our technology – and we are B2B not B2C. Transparency is 100% required, there’s no secrets. But I don’t think we are leading with technology; we have to lead with food.”

GettyImages-Iam Anupong food label consumer
Taste, price and sustainability will speed consumer acceptance of fermented proteins, experts suggest / Pic: GettyImages-Iam Anupong

Chevrel also thinks the ‘consumer is ready’ and won’t be put off by the use of this emergent technology in food production. He added that sustainability is a key motivator for today’s shoppers. “Consumers are more aware of the tension in the food system… They are ready for new ingredients if we bring new products that look like the ones that exist, but with other functionalities. We are bullish about bringing health benefits. Everything I’ve seen when we talk to customers, they are really ready for going to the next level.”

Would the idea that you can have products that are essentially identical to conventional dairy – but without the cow’s involvement – be tougher for consumers to get their heads around? Wohlgensinger confirmed that there is a lack of understanding about the work Formo is doing. However, he remains bullish on future prospects.

“They don’t understand it today because lots of these products have not hit the market,”​ he said. Citing global consumer research Formo has conducted to understand what the consumer thinks, the food innovator added ‘the excitement of the consumers is really big’, specifically driven by ‘the big ask’ for more sustainable food.

“People have started to care much more about the product impact rather than how they are produced. At the end of the day, this is what we are also trying to educate consumers about and show fermentation is a natural process.

“Going from using macroorganisms to do something for us to microorganisms is not even that big of a step. It is the next logical step of the food transition... It is the perfect sweet spot between functionality, saleability and sustainabilty and affordability. When we compare different approaches to solve the food challenge, fermentation has the best opportunity."

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