‘Mushroom mycelium is the food of the future’: Meet the biotech company developing a ‘new generation’ of sustainable food

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

With functional and nutritional benefits, mycelium could be a new tool for plant-based product formulators / Pic: Mushlabs
With functional and nutritional benefits, mycelium could be a new tool for plant-based product formulators / Pic: Mushlabs

Related tags: plant-based, mycelium

Hamburg-based Mushlabs utilises a ‘unique’ and ‘highly efficient’ process to cultivate mushroom mycelium, producing an ingredient the start-up says is ‘ideal’ for plant-based product development. The company has just announced an exciting new upcycling collaboration with Bitburger Brewery Group. FoodNavigator learns more.

Mushlabs leverages submerged fermentation to produce mushroom mycelium - the network of threads from which mushrooms grow. This base ingredient offers a number of advantages to product formulators working in the plant-based space. It is ‘rich in umami’, low in off-flavours and boasts a naturally fibrous texture.

“Mycelium from edible mushrooms offers ideal natural properties for product development, like a highly adaptable rich umami flavour, a naturally fibrous and juicy texture and minimal off-flavours - ideal requirements to produce tasty, natural and minimally-processed food products,”​ Co-Founder and CEO Mazen Rizk told FoodNavigator.

“Our goal is to provide more options for a tasty, sustainable and healthy diet. Thanks to the special properties of our fermented edible mushroom mycelium, there are hardly any limits to what we can do in terms of product development. It enables us to play across the consumer basket in meat, dairy and fish alternatives and even create a totally new and unique food category," ​he said, noting that the group is currently working on a number of prototype products. 

Mycelium also boasts a ‘balanced nutrient profile’, containing complete protein with all essential amino acids, prebiotic fibre, vitamins and minerals. 

GettyImages-Kitchigin mycelium
Mycelium is the network of threads from which mushrooms grow / Pic: GettyImages-Kitchigin

Fermentation: A sustainable solution to the ‘challenges of our times’

Mushlabs’ Rizk maintains that fermenting protein ingredients for use in food production offers a solution to the ‘various pressing challenges of our times’.

Fermenting mycelium in a nutrient liquid, Mushlabs is able to control growth parameters such as temperature and pH levels. This means resources can be used more efficiently and the growth rate of the mycelium can be increased.

“Within a year, we managed to have the growth time for our mycelium to a few days,”​  Rizk said. “Mycelium also grows incredibly fast, around 25 times faster than soy, and needs relatively little resources.”

Properties like aroma and texture can be altered in a ‘targeted manner’ by tweaking the conditions and growth parameters the fungus is exposed to, we were told. “In the future, we will be able to produce raw products that are precisely tailored to different requirements,”​  Rizk added.

Mushlabs fermentation tanks
Mushlabs fermentation tanks / Pic: Mushlabs

Mushrooms are ‘masters’ of upcycling

Rizk explained that mushrooms are ‘masters of upcycling’. This means the start-up is able to leverage side streams from food and agriculture to ferment mycelium, increasing circularity and resource efficiency.

“Mycelium produces highly active enzymes that can break down a large variety of nutrients, which means it can tap significantly more energy sources than other microorganisms,”​ Rizk elaborated.

This approach delivers more than sustainability gains. It provides Mushlabs with a ‘significant edge’ in terms of product versatility and building relationships with multinational food companies, Rizk explained.

This is important because Mushlabs, which was founded in 2018, plans to grow its business through partnerships with major F&B companies as well as in the B2C space. 2022 will be ‘all about commercialisation’, the biotech expert explained.

“We are currently in our commercialisation phase, finalizing the upscaling of our production processes to an industrial level, establishing partnerships with major companies in Europe, the USA and Asia and preparing to announce the launch of our first product.

“Currently we plan to develop a B2C business, we will closely cooperate with renowned food companies all over the world. We believe that our story is captivating and our product is absolutely unique - that's why we will launch our own product brand and build up a strong supporting community,”​ FoodNavigator heard.

The group is now working to build commercial capabilities and the upscaling of the production process to an industrial level is ‘almost complete’. Potential partners for sourcing, co-development and sales are being discussed worldwide.

Bitburger Brewery Group tie-up to upcycle brewery by-products

In this vein, Mushlabs has just revealed it is launching a collaboration alongside Bitburger Brewery Group - one of Germany's largest private breweries.

Bitburger Brewery will provide production capacity and by-products from beer production as raw materials that will be valorised by Mushlabs, who will use their fermentation process to produce mycelium that will be used as an ingredient in 'nutrient-rich, minimally processed' foods.

Bitburger Brewery Group
Bitburger Brewery Group collaborating on upcycling / Pic: Bitburger Brewery Group

The collaboration builds on a long-term relationship between Mushlabs and Bitburger, with the brewer's venture investment arm having invested in Mushlabs in 2019.

It also furthers Bitburger's own sustainability work. The brewer has been 'working intensively' to develop circular economy solutions within its own operations and already recycles its residual materials to the agricultural sector. Bringing the upcycling process on site to produce value-added ingredients for human consumption will be more efficient and reduce emissions linked to areas like transportation, the company noted.

"Through the interaction between the fermentation know-how of Mushlabs and the technical brewing know-how of the Bitburger Brewery Group, we can offer real added value,"​ said Dr Friedrich Droste, MD of Bitburger Ventures.

"Using by-products and existing infrastructure from the brewing process to produce alternative proteins in the brewery environment is no longer a future fantasy with this cooperation, but lived practice that creates sustainable value for all parties involved and the environment."

Unlocking the possibility of local production for 'fairer' food

This hyper-local approach that sees by-products upcycled on-site highlights another advantage of the Mushlabs fermentation tech. The production is independent from environmental influences and can be carried out locally for shorter supply chains. There is no need for soil, pesticides or fertilisers and the production can be established ‘anywhere in the world’, regardless of factors like climate.

This meets food safety and security objectives and could help develop a ‘fairer’ and ‘decentralised’ future food system, Rizk believes.

“We follow a so-called ‘multilocal’ approach. Since fermentation is independent from environmental conditions and can be implemented everywhere, we want to cooperate with partners worldwide to source local side streams and produce products, that are adapted to local taste and culture. Our vision is to help create a decentralized, fairer and more sustainable food system.”

Mushlabs recently secured fresh funding to help it accelerate towards commercial scale. The company will receive an eight-figure figure capital injection from the EU's EIC Accelerator program, it revealed. It is also amoung the start-ups to join EIT Food's RisingFoodStars, whose cohort receive industry support, networking opportunities and access to additional investment to help them grow and scale.

While Rizk said that it is 'still early days' and the start-up is evaluating next steps to build scale, it is clear that the company wants to grow rapidly with a focus on R&D. Over the last year it has doubled its team, bringing in additional expertise to support future growth. 

“We believe that mushroom mycelium is the food of the future.”

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