The plant-based meat sector has experienced a boom over the last decade. With pressure from governments to decarbonise economies and demand from shoppers for less carbon-intensive food, brands have responded with plant-based burgers, sausages, mince, and nuggets.
However, mimicking meat is no mean feat. Achieving the same appearance, texture, taste, and mouthfeel as conventional animal-based products remain a real challenge.
For Swedish start-up Melt&Marble, one of the biggest hurdles lies in the fat component of plant-based meat analogues. “The plant-based fats currently used simply do not feel, act and taste like animal-based fats,” according to CEO and co-founder Dr Anastasia Krivoruchko.
“As a result, the food does not taste as good, making it less attractive to consumers.”
Melt&Marble believes it has found a solution in precision fermentation-derived fat alternatives with molecular properties that mirror animal fats.
“We basically looked at the molecular structure of beef fat and asked ourselves: ‘What is it about this that gives it nice properties?’ We then replicated these elements with our [yeast] strains and ended up with something that is structurally very similar and behaves the same,” said Dr Krivoruchko.
“It’s a ground-breaking step towards making plant-based meat tastier.”
Cell cultivation vs precision fermentation
Melt&Marble is amongst the first to produce a beef-like fat prototype.
The company is not, however, the first in the world to develop next-gen fat for plant-based matrices. London-based Hoxton Farms, Barcelona-headquartered Cubiq Foods, and Meat-Tech 3D-owned Peace of Meat are all developing cell-cultivated fat to replace vegetable oils in the vegan meat category.
So why has Melt&Marble decided to produce animal-like fats using precision fermentation – which uses microbial hosts as ‘cell factories’ for producing specific functional ingredients – rather than cell cultivation technology?
One reason, Dr Krivoruchko told FoodNavigator, is due to the flexibility of precision fermentation technology. “With precision fermentation, we can really tailor make fat structures and create all sorts of fats, including meat fats and dairy fats.”
Another reason, we were told, is that fermentation-based technologies are generally more cost-competitive and easier to scale than cell culture-based technologies, which she expects to be ‘very important’ going forward.
“The founders of Melt&Marble – Dr Florian David, Prof Jens Nielsen, and myself – come from many years of experience working with precision fermentation, so we are very comfortable with this technology and its capabilities.”
Programming yeast to mimic animal fat
Melt&Marble is also not the only player in the precision fermentation space. An increasing number of entrepreneurs are turning their hand to animal-free dairy or eggs. Germany-based Formo, for example, is working on precision fermentation-derived cheese, while The EVERY Company (formerly Clara Foods) is applying a similar approach to egg production, without the chickens. Even natural colour maker Phytolon is leveraging precision fermentation technology to develop pigments for the food industry.
At its core, Melt&Marble’s approach is similar: the start-up is also programming yeast. “This includes both engineering the native metabolism of our yeast, as well as introducing genes from other organisms,” Dr Krivoruchko explained.
The main difference, when comparing Melt&Marble’s technology to that used by precision fermentation-derived dairy protein makers for example, is that this programming can be ‘a bit’ more complex when it comes to fats.
“In the case of dairy proteins, you’d express a gene for the protein in the yeast, and then the yeast would produce this protein. We can’t really express genes for specific fats (since fat is not a gene product), but instead have to program the yeast’s fat assembly machinery to produce specific fats.”
First up: beef fat. What’s next?
The start-up is initially targeting beef fat, but is interested in mimicking other animal fats in the future.
Melt&Marble’s decision to focus on beef fat in the first instance was informed by the state of the plant-based meat market as well the environmental impact of beef production, explained its CEO.
“We decided to go after beef fat because plant-based beef alternatives are already widely available, but at the same time fat is a huge problem for a lot of these products. Plant-based fats don’t give the same juiciness and mouthfeel as animal-based fats.
“In terms of sustainability, beef is also really important to disrupt.”
When the company diversifies its portfolio, the natural next step would be to focus on other types of meat fats, such as chicken and pork, Dr Krivoruchko told this publication, adding that this is something Melt&Marble is looking into.
“Each type of animal fat has a different composition. Depending on the desired fat composition, we might need to make additional adjustments to our yeast’s metabolism,” she explained.
In the future, dairy fats could be ‘quite interesting’ as well, the CEO continued.
One of the biggest hurdles facing the precision fermentation sector is regulation. Melt&Marble will have to receive regulatory approval before commercialising its fats – which Dr Krivoruchko suggested will inform its sales strategy.
“The US [where Perfect Day sells its precision fermentation-derived dairy proteins] and Singapore [where the first cell cultivated meat product received regulatory approval] will likely be our first target geographies due to their simpler regulatory landscape.
“Europe is, of course, also very important. But as regulatory approval here is more complex, it will likely take longer before we start selling here.”
In the meantime, the start-up has secured €5m in its Series Seed financing round to scale up production and expand its team. The round was led by Lever VC, with participation from Be8 Ventures, Good Startup, Nordic Foodtech VC, Paulig Incubator (PINC) and Chalmers Ventures.
Melt&Marble is aiming to have its first products on the market around late 2023 or early 2024.