Mycoprotein is a fungal protein that originates from the fungus Fusarium venenatum, which occurs naturally. It is created by fermenting fungi spores with glucose and other nutrients in a process that’s not dissimilar from that used to make beer.
One of the important things to note about mycoprotein-based meat substitutes is they’re not technically ‘plant-based’, as mycoprotein stems from fungi, which is a whole different ‘kingdom’ to plants.
Quorn, arguably the most well-known purveyor of mycoprotein goods, hosted Tuesday’s summit. The summit gathered together experts and researchers in the field of mycoprotein, and covered several of the health and environmental benefits of the protein.
Fibre of life
At the event, Dr. Daniel Commane, an associate professor at Northumbria University, stressed the importance of fibre to gut health and its presence in mycoprotein.
“We began to tease out what might happen if we got everybody in the population to stop eating meat and start eating various sources of plant based foods [or] mycoprotein,” said Dr. Commane.
“If everybody did that tomorrow, we would on average, just about hit the dietary guidelines for fibre.” This could lead to a decrease in diabetes, diverticular disease and colorectal cancer, among other things.
But allowable health claims have yet to catch up with the increasing knowledge about mycoprotein's health benefits, according to Dr. Fred Warren from the Quadram institute.
“Mycoprotein has lots of health benefits, aside from just delivering good quality protein. But some of what you can share with consumers, particularly in terms of health claims and packaging, hasn't really caught up with that.
“There isn't really any health claim that I'm aware of formulated around protein with fibre, and the beneficial effects that can have potentially in colorectal cancer. So I think there's there's a combination of research and also the regulation catching up.”
Fibre is also found in plant-based foods, such as oats, but the fibre is different in its makeup, Dr. Commane later told us. Despite this difference, “what is important, I think, is the benefits that you see with the oat lowers cholesterol in a similar manner. We don't know which is best.”
Variety is key. When we think about our microbiome, “what you want, there's lots of different sources of fibre. Lots of different types of bacteria that specialise in eating different foods.”
Animal vs. non-animal
There’s a contrast between animal and non-animal sources of protein, and people often wrongly assume that the latter is of a lower protein quality than the former, revealed Professor Benjamin Wall from the University of Exeter.
“We are basically providing the majority of protein from mycoprotein, in which there is a more balanced amino acid profile is more indicative of meat,” he said.
In a study by the University of Exeter, people were fed either protein from ‘high quality animal-based sources’ or animal protein and asked to train hard. “We weren't trying to compare [mycoprotein], for instance, to processed meat and burgers, we were trying to get people very good, healthy omnivorous diet, and training them very, very hard, and actually maximise the adaptive response that you can measure under laboratory conditions.”
The study showed that it was foolish to underestimate non-animal protein sources. “The question then is what if we don't take our protein from a [similarly protein rich] but non-animal source, not the plant-based source but fungal-based source? Would that provide a detriment to adaptive response? The answer was no.”
Research new to the field
The summit also gathered together PhD students from the Universities of Nottingham, Exeter and Northumbria to talk about some of their research into the field.
Kamil Szepe, from the University of Nottingham, spoke about his research into stimulating the increase of the presence of amino acids in mycoprotein.
“So looking at the ways of alternate ways of improving the mycoprotein,” he said, “we need to first start looking at what is the most valuable, one of the most valuable aspects of protein for nutrition. So that will be its amino acid composition.”
The amino acids in the research have “been linked to being beneficial to increasing body mass. So that will be for both people like athletes or in the elderly, who tend to lose muscle mass.”
Dr. Alistair Monteyne from the University of Exeter researched into the benefits on muscle-building from mycoprotein. His work “was to establish whether the mycoprotein was a high-quality protein source.”
The research compared people on an omnivorous diet to those on a vegan diet based around mycoprotein. Those with diets of mycoprotein built muscle more successfully than those on an omnivorous diet.
According to Monteyne, the research has given ‘a more favourable view’ of a plant-based diet than many had previously held.
Gráinne Whelehan, also from the University of Exeter, looked at the presence of micronutrients, such as B-12, vitamin D, calcium and iron in the bloodstream, comparing their presence during a diet which included animal products, and a vegan diet based around mycoprotein.
The results were surprising. “We can see that such a vegan diet, very much mycoprotein heavy, doesn't really affect the micronutrients . . . if you have a lot of mycoprotein for a numerous amount of weeks, doesn't lead to deficiencies in certain micronutrients, which has been suggested before.”
Finally, research from Dr. Dominic Farsi, who works for the research and development company Teagasc, showed that mycoprotein is high in fibre and brings less risk of cancer compared with meat.
Mycoprotein is “not just replacing meat,” said Dr. Farsi, “but there's also the other aspects of mycoprotein, like high fibre.”
A certain level of chemicals in the gut can increase DNA damage, which in turn increases cancer risk. Dr. Farsi’s research found that a mycoprotein diet led to a lower level of genotoxicity (the ability of substances to damage genetic information in cells) than a processed meat diet.
“So what this suggests,” said Dr. Farsi, “is that mycoprotein is probably a better option than red processed meat. But what this also suggests is the inclusion of mycoprotein may be beneficial to a standard Western diet.”