Ukraine’s ExtraCell Ingredients on making yeast, the brave new world of biotech fermentation, and Monday meetings in the bomb shelter
Based in Lviv – the architecturally-rich city in western Ukraine – ExtraCell’s product portfolio includes yeast extracts, inactive yeasts, and autolyzed yeast.
ExtraCell belongs to Enzym Group, a major company in Ukraine with a history dating back to 1870. The company is a leader in the production of yeast for the domestic market and exports to 23 countries on 3 continents.
In 2019, Enzym took the strategic decision to transform from a yeast company into a biotech company and the ExtraCell brand was born.
In the autumn of 2022 it launched an in-house high-end production site for ExtraCell products next to its existing premises in Lviv. ExtraCell’s yeast ingredients are used to improve flavour in a wide range of products, including condiments, sauces, seasonings, snacks, processed meat, plant-based alternatives to meat and fish, instant meals and ready meals.
“Our core business is selling yeast to bakeries across Belgium, Holland, Germany and Central and Eastern Europe,” explained Enzym Commercial Director Serhii Lavrov.
“In terms of basic yeast production, we are one of the biggest independent producers in Europe, with 50,000 tonnes of fermentation capacity. From this 50,000 tonnes we can produce fresh yeast, dry yeast or yeast-based extracts.”
At the moment, 70% of its production is geared to making fresh yeast. But it plans to raise its production of yeast-based extracts. Yeasts have been used in traditional biotechnology for production of fermented foods and beverages for thousands of years. Speaking with FoodNavigator at the recent FiE trade event in Paris, Lavrov said the company had spotted rising interest in fermented ingredients from Europe’s food manufacturers seeking healthier and more sustainable solutions.
“People here [at FiE] are very interested in it because it’s a challenging industry which is breaking the rules in the food industry. What we see are the habits of people changing, and this new biotech industry can help make food more healthy, safer and sustainable.”
There are challenges in this space, however. Cost is one. “When we propose the products from fermentation people often say it's too expensive,” admitted Lavrov, before listing the nutritional and functional benefits of yeast extracts as a food ingredient.
The extracts provide an umami flavour that is long-lasting and rich, he explained. The technology of production defines the flavour characteristics of yeast extracts: savoury, cheesy, yeasty, or meaty. It is a natural source of glutamic acid that provides a rich, savoury taste. Yeast extracts ideally mask the unpleasant flavours and help to lower salt and sugar content and are a clean label alternative to MSG.
"Fermentation possibilities are unbelievable because inside the yeast cell you have beta glucans, omega saccharides and other healthy polysaccharides,” Lavrov said.
One of the company’s tie-ups is with Kyiv-based plant-based meat company Eat Me At, which is using ExtraCell’s yeast extract to bring umami notes to its product. “Without the yeast extract it doesn't have any taste,” a company spokesperson said. “These extracts give the right taste that you recognise. It also has a good aftertaste.”
The other challenge is the need to adjust products to the needs of customers. "Yeast extract is not about just the product,” explained Lavrov. “It is about offering solutions for the food industry.”
Other solutions offered by ExtraCell, for example, include flavour enhancement, off-note masking, improvement of nutritional profile, and clean-label alternatives. These solutions are backed with a pilot production line, sensory panel, and partner network of prominent food consultants and institutions. “We want to be more flexible than our competitors and the more specific in our solutions,” Lavrov told us.
Under the shadow of aggression
There’s another glaring challenge the company faces. All its innovation and recent factory opening has happened under the shadow of conflict.
Lviv is in the far west of Ukraine, just 70 kilometres from the Polish border. Its notoriously pretty architecture (the historic centre has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998) is more like Vienna or Krakow than Kyiv.
The city became a key haven for Ukrainians fleeing those parts of the country affected by the invasion. It has witnessed its fair share of suffering too and has been the target of missile strikes as Russia has stepped up assaults on Ukraine's energy infrastructure in the run up to winter.
"Of course, it's an extraordinary experience and situation,” said Lavrov as he recounted the decision of the company directors to re-locate their weekly Monday meeting to inside a bomb shelter.
“The alarms can happen at any time as the Russians have tried to hit our energy system. We've bought powerful two-megawatt generators which can support our production even if we have total blackout in Ukraine.”
His coping mechanism, he told us, has been to plough his efforts into the business. “We’ve been doing all we can to support our production and our employees,” he said.
Around 50 of Enzym’s 370-strong Lviv-based staff left the country and now work remotely, for example. Some staff now in Lviv have fled from parts of Ukraine now under Russian occupation.
“We’ve adapted; changed the logistics; changed the rules inside the company. Encouraging people to think more flexibly in a fast-changing situation is the main reason we've survived.”
Around 90% of the company’s raw ingredients, meanwhile, are sourced from Ukraine. "That's challenging because some producers are under occupation, some producers are under bombing and had their premises ruined.”
Amid this, the company continues to innovate and develop new products. It may launch its own fermented products, for example.
“When you are in this horrible situation you need day-to-day routine,” observed the Commercial Director. “What we try to do within the company is to concentrate on day-to-day routine. Of course, we know all the news. But you need to think about the day-to-day routine; not about the horror in which you are [in]. Inside the country we are trying to do the best.”
Tuesday December 20 marked the 300th day of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Again, this is a fact that Lavrov and his team is not pondering.
“In Ukraine, we didn't expect what happened,” he explained. “We read the experts saying it will go this way, it will go that way. But we have no choice. We don't want to be under the Russians. We will struggle to the end. We hope and believe that the whole world will support us. I don't know what will happen... it's hard to think about it. Russians will strike for as long as they can, they have no sentiments about this. We try and not to think about it because it will be long-term. But day to day routine; making yeast and sending it to bakeries... it helps us a lot.”