Fermentation as a food processing technique is gaining importance for its functional benefits like gut health, which we explored in the first part of this blog series. We can see strong support for gut health and plant-based trends as drivers of fermentation. In this post, we will explore how fermentation is changing the plant-based trend, particularly with respect to protein.
The plant-based protein industry is constantly researching technologies and ingredients for alternative protein food trends that taste, texture, and function like animal protein, Fermentation – which is vital for the production of dairy (like yogurt) and non-dairy products (like tempeh) – is now helping in the innovation and scaling up of production of new types of meat analogs.
Advanced processes like biomass fermentation and precision fermentation are turning to be the key for not just the future of alternative protein but maybe even food as a whole.
The production of alternative protein through fermentation has the food industry excited given the potential. In fact, we’re seeing record investments made in fermentation technology. As per the Good Food Institute report on alternative protein food trends, a total of $435 million was invested in alternative protein fermentation companies in just the first seven months of 2020.
Alternative Protein Sources
Meat and animal products have always been seen as major sources of protein. But as plant-based diets become more mainstream, the demand for plant-based protein alternatives or alternative protein sources that are sustainable and complete has been growing. Alternative protein is a general term that covers both plant-based and food-technology alternatives to animal or meat protein. It can be obtained from plants (grains, legumes, nuts, pulses, and seeds), algae (macro- and micro-algae), insects (crickets), and fermentation.
Plant-based eating and lifestyles have seen a huge surge due to concerns over health, environmental impact, animal welfare, and overall conscious consumption. People look for alternative protein food trends to make better choices. They are starting to realize that their food choices have a social and environmental impact. Growing concern over environmental issues and animal rights has made people look for other sources of sustainable proteins. Consumers are also accepting that reducing meat consumption is good for health as a whole.
So even though animal protein is more efficient and better suited for certain nutritional needs – such as vitamin B12 – worries over the environmental and ethical impact of production have paved the way for the search for alternatives.
According to Spoonshot data, interest in alternative protein increased by 248.6% between 2016 and 2020.
Figure: Growth in interest in alternative protein
Health Benefits of Alternative Protein
One of the major issues with plant-based proteins is that they are often incomplete, which means that they do not contain all of the nine essential amino acids. To ensure this, a combination of different plant sources needs to be eaten.
However, that is not to say that plant proteins do not offer health benefits. Several studies have been looking into the health effects of plant proteins. Research showed that extracted plant proteins had an effect on reducing the cholesterol levels in blood lipid concentration. Reduction in blood pressure was reported in pea protein and lupin isolate, and pea, rice, and hemp reported a significant increase in muscle mass.
Figure: Health benefits linked to alternative protein
Alternative Proteins by Fermentation
As per Spoonshot’s data, business interest in alternative proteins manufactured through fermentation has increased by 112.6% since 2018. Fermentation has become a breakthrough topic within the alternative protein sector. Companies like Perfect Day, Motif, and Clara Foods have been using fermentation technology to meet market demand for animal-free proteins that can be incorporated into products/brands.
Perfect Day uses microflora (a microorganism such as bacteria, yeast, or fungi) to make proteins identical to whey and casein so that it mimics real cow milk.
Motif is an ingredient innovation company that is creating dairy proteins made from microbes and not cows, but with the same functional qualities (melting, stretching, elasticity) and taste and nutritional value.
Clara Foods combines sugar and yeast along with advanced yeast engineering and fermentation technologies to selectively cultivate strains of yeast to get protein, such as egg albumen for baking.
The occurrence of fermentation and alternative protein together (co-occurrence) grew 219% during 2018-19.
Figure: Co-occurrence of fermentation and alternative protein
Microbes are vegan friendly
Given that fermentation techniques to create alternative proteins rely on live cultures, there has been concern whether it can be considered to be vegan since these microbes are living organisms. In fact, consumers do appear to have not considered foods with live microbes to be vegan, based on sentiment analysis by Spoonshot. The trend lines show a rise in negative sentiment towards fermentation in the context of vegan food starting in mid-2017 and starting to decline a year later, while the positive sentiment rose.
Figure: Sentiment analysis of fermentation within vegan food and drink space
Microbes, like plants, don’t have a well-developed central nervous system like animals. So they are unable to feel pain in the same way we do, which is why it is considered to be okay to consume microbes in a vegan diet. In addition, animal bodies themselves contain vast quantities of different types of microbes that aid in proper functioning. Thus microbe-derived food products of this kind can be considered vegan compliant.
Types of Fermentation
Fermentation is by no means a new technique. It has been used in the dairy sector to make yogurt and cheese for centuries. It has also been used to mass-produce medicines, food colors, and a number of other ingredients for decades now.
In recent years, particularly with the growing popularity of animal-free food, research has shifted into using fermentation techniques for protein alternatives. This is still in its early stages, but there has been enormous progress and success in recreating meat alternatives using these techniques.
One of the pioneers in this space of meat alternatives, Impossible Foods, created plant-based heme through the fermentation of genetically engineered yeast. Heme is an essential molecule that contains iron and is found in high concentrations in blood and in lower concentrations in plants. It is what gives meat its taste.
There are a number of fermentation techniques used in the food processing space to manufacture different products from different sources.
Biomass fermentation is similar to microbial fermentation, but it involves mass production of protein by microbes that are themselves protein-dense, e.g., algae and fungi. Microbes have the ability to multiply exponentially, and this ability allows them to increase the volume of available biomass (the group of base cells) in a very short amount of time. This type of fermentation targets the protein content of the microbes which is the key parameter for alternative protein production.
Figure: Meati’s fungi-based Chick’n is made using mycelium which provides 16g of protein and 6g of fiber
Precision fermentation, or recombinant protein production, is now widely used in the alternative protein segment. It is a combination of fermentation and precision biology, which integrates modern information technology (like artificial intelligence, machine learning) and modern biotechnology (like genetic engineering, bioinformatics).
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These two processes, combined, allow for the production of complex organic molecules from microbes that can be programmed to have customized functionalities.
Figure: Brave Robot ice cream uses the animal-free dairy protein from Perfect Day made using precision fermentation
Although both precision and biomass fermentation has been used for a number of applications over the decades, their application in producing proteins and meat analogs is very relevant to the growing consumer move to reduce meat consumption. These techniques are still relatively new to the space of meat alternatives, and standardizing several process parameters and achieving better sensory, functional, and nutritional qualities are still being explored.
Alternative Protein Ingredients
The main ingredients being used by some of the biggest manufacturers in the alternative protein space are as follows:
|Protein Source||Company||Meat Alternative Products|
|Mycelium||Meati||Chick’n – a chicken alternative|
|Koji, a type of fungi||Prime Roots||Bacon, Chicken, Pork, Beef, Turkey|
|Soy Protein||Impossible Foods||Burgers Ground meat|
Figure: Koji- based meat alternative
Alternative proteins used to make seafood analogs
Alternative proteins have not only made their mark in the meat category but have also stepped into the alternative seafood sector.
|Protein Source||Company||Seafood Alternative Products|
|Cell-based||Shiok Meats||Lobsters, Shrimps, Crayfish, Crabs|
|Cultivated meat and animal protein||Avant Meats||Cultured seafood|
Figure: Cultured lobster meat
The future of ethical culture: Protein from thin air
While the debate over whether fermentation is vegan or not has been put to rest, a similar debate will take place with lab-grown meat that still requires a culture sample from animal sources. Vegan consumers who may be willing to consider meat that is lab-grown will not do so until they can be sure that sourcing is done in a humane and ethical manner.
This brings us to another interesting source that has huge potential: air. Air-based agriculture is a process by which elements in the air, such as carbon dioxide, are utilized and transformed into proteins in short periods of time without any land or water, or other resources.
With appropriate input sources, microbes generate proteins in fermentation vessels. The startup Air Protein has introduced a proprietary process called ‘closed-loop carbon cycle’ based on the science behind producing food in space.
Figure: Closed loop carbon cycle
Other companies are also using the air around us to source microbes to grow food through fermentation processes.
Figure: Solar Foods’ ‘solein’ is a single-cell protein born from a bioprocess of electricity and air and is said to be natural and sustainable
The need for nutritional transparency in alternative protein
Consumers should have easy access to nutritious food along with clear, realistic, and up-to-date food-based dietary guidelines. They should also be aware of identifying a healthy choice out of the countless possibilities. In the context of alternative protein sources, it is important to note that just because a food is ‘vegan’, ‘vegetarian’, or ‘plant-based’ does not necessarily guarantee that it is a ‘healthy’ option.
At present, there are many alternative protein source products available that are less-than-ideal substitutes considering they are high in salt, low in some key nutrients, and are usually ultra-processed. Therefore, transparency is needed regarding the nutritional content of alternative proteins, enabling consumers to make informed choices.
Different types of fermentation can be used to produce various protein alternatives to meet the growing demands of consumers for more ethical and sustainable products. At the same time, these technologies can help significantly improve the taste and texture of these products.
Consumers today don’t consider food as just for sustenance anymore. It has to satisfy multiple requirements, including taste, specific health benefits, and environmental sustainability.
Food security is becoming an increasing concern as well with population growth in the coming decades. Fermentation and related technologies are going to be crucial in achieving food security as well as a sustainable ecosystem in the coming decades.