Solar Foods protein ‘made from air’ gets novel food nod in Singapore

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Solein is a microbial protein-rich powder that contains all the essential amino acids. The novel ingredient is made from CO2, air and electricity. Image source: Solar Foods
Solein is a microbial protein-rich powder that contains all the essential amino acids. The novel ingredient is made from CO2, air and electricity. Image source: Solar Foods

Related tags alternative protein Novel food ingredient

Solein, Solar Foods’ protein grown with CO2 and electricity, has received regulatory approval from the Singapore Food Agency (SFA). Commercial launch is planned for 2024, CEO and co-founder Pasi Vainikka tells FoodNavigator.

The Finnish start-up submitted a novel food dossier on its Solein ingredient to the SFA in September last year. Now, just over one year on, Solar Foods has received regulatory approval, enabling the sale of food products containing Solein in Singapore.

Having a ‘new species’ of protein authorised for commercialisation is ‘exciting’, responded Solar Foods co-founder and CEO Pasi Vainikka, who hopes start-ups and investors hesitating to enter the space will be inspired to dive in.

“We’re showing that with new products, it is possible. We can make this happen.”

What is Solein?

Solein is a microbial protein-rich powder that contains all the essential amino acids. The novel ingredient is made from CO2, air and electricity.

The complete protein is produced using a bioprocess whereby microbes are fed with gases (carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and oxygen), and ‘small amounts’ of nutrients. The start-up likens the bioprocess to winemaking, with carbon dioxide and hydrogen replacing sugar as the source of carbon and energy, respectively.

According to Solar Foods, Solein is the ‘first ever’ novel food disconnected from the limits of traditional agriculture. The ingredient can be produced in harsh conditions, such as deserts, Arctic regions, and even space. “The process does not require animals or photosynthetic plants, making Solein the world’s most sustainable protein,” ​notes the start-up.

As to its nutrition credentials, Solein contains 65-70% protein, 5-8% fat, 10-15% dietary fibres, and 3-5% mineral nutrients. The start-up likens its macronutrient composition to that of dried soy or algae. In terms of micronutrients, the ingredient provides iron and B vitamins.

Solar Foods is hoping to sell Solein to food brands looking for ‘nutritious, functional, and sustainable food ingredients of consistent quality’: “Solein can be used with a wide variety of other ingredients: it vanishes into foods and doesn’t change the taste of familiar, everyday food products.”

First Singapore… then the world

Solar Foods submitted its novel food dossier to the SFA just over one year ago. The dialogue between the regulator and start-up was ‘efficient’, according to Vainikka, with correspondence ‘weekly, if not biweekly’.

As to the submission process itself, the CEO likened it to the Novel Foods legislation in Europe. “The studies, data, and submission [process] is identical to that of the EU.”

Solein can be used in a variety of applications, including in dairy alternatives. Image source: Solar Foods

Singapore marks the first regulatory approval for Solar Foods’ Solein, but the start-up suggested ‘other markets are expected to follow’. The company plans to seek GRAS status assessment for Solein in the US ‘soon’.

Earlier this year, Solar Foods filed for novel food authorisation in the EU and UK.

When will Solein hit the menu?

When should consumers expect to be able to purchase products containing this novel protein? Although the ingredient is approved for sale in Singapore now, Solar Foods doesn’t plan to commercialise until 2024.

This is due to a current lack of production capability, Vainikka explained. “We have a pilot facility today, and have done so for some years already. We are producing less than 5kg per week, [meaning] we can launch something little here and there…but we can’t supply volumes of our product.”

Between now and 2024, the start-up will be working to build out its production capabilities. Solar Foods broke ground on its first commercial production facility, Factory 01, in Vantaa, Finland, during Q4 2021. The site is on track to begin operations in 2024.

Meat alternatives is another category on Solar Foods' radar for its novel ingredient Solein. Image source: Solar Foods

To begin with, Solar Foods will produce Solein for the Singapore market from Factory 01, before exploring the potential for local production.

The process of securing food manufacturing partners in Singapore is ‘under development’, but Vainikka did not reveal specifics, telling us only to ‘stay tuned’.

‘We are but a dot in the trajectory of alt proteins’

The regulatory approval marks an historic moment for Solar Foods, and for the food industry more broadly. Solein is a ‘new species’ of protein, Vainikka explained. “I’d compare this to the discovery of the potato: we are introducing an entirely new ingredient to the world of food. It’s a watershed moment for how we think of what we eat.”

As to how this approval feeds into the world of alternative proteins, the CEO suggested it signals change.

“There have been companies before us and there will be companies after us with other products. This is just one dot in the trajectory of the launch and rollout of alternative proteins globally. We are just one dot in this curve.”

The approval could also be perceived as a message to start-ups hesitating to enter the alternative protein space, and to venture capital firms thinking considering investment. For the latter, the only external binary risk is regulatory, explained Vainikka. “With money, you can solve production capability problems, you can hire people, you can [develop] product. But the binary risk, that is not in your control, is regulatory approval.”

Now that this regulatory hurdle has been overcome, Solar Foods is showing ‘colleague companies’ and potential investors that bringing novel products to market is possible. “I hope it inspires [start-ups] and investors to invest in the sector.”

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