A first for photosynthesis- and agriculture-free food: Protein ‘made from air’ officially on the menu

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Solar Foods’ first collaboration is replacing dairy protein in a gelato dessert. Image source: Solar Foods
Solar Foods’ first collaboration is replacing dairy protein in a gelato dessert. Image source: Solar Foods

Related tags novel protein Sustainability alternative protein

Finnish start-up Solar Foods is marketing its novel microbial protein Solein for the first time. In partnership with Singapore-based restaurant Fico, the duo has developed a dessert made with ingredients ‘derived out of thin air’.

In what Finland-headquartered Solar Foods claims is the ‘first time’ in history, a food produced without any connection to photosynthesis and agriculture is now available to the general public.

The start-up has partnered with The Lo & Behold Group-owned Fico, an Italian seaside restaurant in Singapore, to develop the Solein Chocolate Gelato. First tastes were served to an invite-only tasting last month, and the offering is now officially on the menu.

What is food ‘made from air’?

Solar Foods’ novel microbial protein Solein 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 has previously linked the bioprocess to winemaking​, with carbon dioxide and hydrogen replacing sugar as the source of carbon and energy, respectively.

Being completely disconnected from the agriculture – the process does not require animals or photosynthetic plants – makes Solein the world’s most sustainable protein, believes Solar Foods.

From a nutrition perspective, Solein contains 65-70% protein, 10-15% dietary fibres, 5-8% fat, and 3-5% mineral nutrients.

As a novel ingredient, Solein requires pre-market approval prior to commercialisation. Solar Foods submitted its novel food dossier to the Singapore Food Agency in September 2021 and received regulatory approval in October 2022.

That means Solein can now be used and sold as a replacement of existing proteins in a variety of foods, for example in alternative dairy and meat, snacks and beverages, noodles and pasta, or breads and spreads.

Solar Foods’ first collaboration is indeed replacing a protein: dairy protein in a gelato dessert.

In the new gelato, the colour comes from the chocolate, so there is no visual clue that Solein is present. Image source: Solar Foods

Functionality of Solein in ice cream

Solein, together with vegetable oils, replaces dairy in the ice cream product, explained Solar Foods co-founder and CEO Pasi Vainikka. “There is no different in protein content compared to dairy-based ice cream.”

As a functional ingredient, Solein can be used to make ice cream without the use of additives. And with no unwanted flavours or off-notes, no masking ingredients are required. In fact many times during the Solein Chocolate Gelato launch the team offered the ice cream unflavoured, Vainikka told FoodNavigator. “Just for fun, to demonstrate there are no off-notes.”

As to the ingredient’s texture, the CEO explained it provides a ‘very smooth’ mouthfeel. “That structure forming/mouth feeling capability is Solein at its best.”

And finally, the company said the ingredient gives food a ‘complementary’ colour from the carotenoids which are naturally present. In the new gelato, the colour comes from the chocolate, so there is no visual clue that Solein is present.

“If you didn’t know, you could not guess this gelato includes an entirely new, unique, and nutritious ingredient just by tasting it,” ​said Solar Foods CCO Shilei Zhang. “It looks, feels and tastes just like any other Italian gelato – and that is exactly the idea. Solein is the ‘Intel inside’ of the food industry.”

From ice cream to beyond

The decision to develop a Solein ice cream product first was not an easy one.

“As Solein is such a versatile ingredient, it can be used in multiple product categories, and this was definitely not an easy choice,” ​CEO Vainikka told FoodNavigator.

The company made the decision together with Fico as ice cream is highly popular in Singapore. It’s common to see people queuing at ice cream kiosks for a cool treat on a hot Singapore evening, we were told. Selecting chocolate as the first flavour was also informed by local preferences: it is one of the most popular flavours in ice cream across the world, and so easy to adapt to local tastes.

“We are also replacing dairy with Solein and thus removing the animal from the equation, thus offering a much more sustainable choice without compromising on taste and texture.”

Fico is selling its Solein Chocolate Gelato product in Singapore. Image source: Solar Foods

Fico’s new gelato is the first of what Solar Foods hopes will be a significant number of Solein-based foods entering the market in coming years. Just two weeks ago, Solar Foods announced a strategic alliance with Japanese food major Ajinomoto to develop products and conduct a marketability study starting in Q1 2024.

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