Fungus-based “mycoprotein” may be the next future food

A wave of startups are looking to bring fungus beyond mushrooms to your dinner plate.

Writing this past May in Nature Food, researchers at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk encouraged readers to think about the impact of alternative food sources beyond being nutritious and more sustainable. 

Our food system calculus needs to include another variable: the ability of these future foods to “provide essential nutrition in the face of systemic disturbances” — you know, like a supply-chain-snapping pandemic, locust swarm, or brutal drought. 

And if the money flow means anything, the plant-based products by companies like Beyond and Impossible may soon be joined by another offering: food made from fungi, known as mycoprotein.

Easily grown by fermenting them in large, environmentally-controlled containers called bioreactors, requiring less natural resources than livestock and soy, and capable of being a main dish or ingredient, companies — including big names like Unilever, Tyson, and Kellogs, as The Spoon reported — are looking to make mycoprotein a mainstream option.

Plant-based products by companies like Beyond and Impossible may soon be joined by another offering: food made from fungi.

The first spores: While there’s a new wave of startups looking to bring mycoprotein to the masses, going from fungus to food — beyond the classics like portobellos — was pioneered decades ago, WIRED UK’s Matt Reynolds reported.

Former British movie mogul J. Arthur Rank developed a fungus found in a village compost pile into a flavorless, protein-packed mycoprotein. Approved for sale in the mid 80s, the company released savory pies under the brand name Quorn — studiously avoiding mention of the word “fungus.”

“This was very much a core vegetarian food,” Tim Finnigan, who works for Quorn’s producer, Marlow Foods, told Reynolds. 

Still being produced, Quorn is grown in massive fermenters for four days before being harvested and frozen, which gives the mycoprotein its chicken-esque texture, per Reynolds. To get that appealing feel, plant-based proteins require an additional processing step; they’re also pickier about the sugars they need to ferment — fungus food companies are looking into using produce that would otherwise go unsold, helping cut into food waste.

Mycoprotein — along with other alternative food sources like microalgae and seaweed — is rich in nutrients and can be grown in small, flexible, and easy-to-move facilities, Cambridge’s Asaf Tzachor, one of the Nature Food authors, told Anthropocene. This can make it ideal for places without much land, like cities; in a poetic turn, mycoprotein startup Nature’s Fynd sits on the site of Chicago’s Union Stockyards, made notorious in Upton Sinclaire’s The Jungle.

Mycoprotein are easily grown by fermenting them in large, environmentally-controlled containers called bioreactors, and require less natural resources than livestock and soy.

Buenos Aires-based Kernel Mycofoods, which ferments a fungus based on a strain already approved for consumption by the FDA and The European Food Safety Authority, can grow its mycoprotein with less water and land consumption than soy, chicken, or beef, according to The Spoon.

Once made, the mycoprotein gets processed into any number of foodstuffs, including “fish” sticks, kebabs, and “sausage” rolls.

But now, startups like Sweden’s Mycorena, Nature’s Fynd, and Kernel are looking to expand mycoprotein into ingredients and additives.

Mycoprotein sprouts: WIRED UK’s Reynolds reported on some of the potential uses for mycoprotein beyond making Impossible-style meatless products. 

“Mycoprotein is becoming more of an ingredient,” Mycorena CEO Ramkumar Nair told Reynolds. “We aim to be a supplier of ingredients to all of the food companies that want to make vegan products.” 

Startups are looking to expand mycoprotein into ingredients and additives.

Colorado’s MycoTechnology is looking to go a step further: “We’re focused on driving sugar, salt and fat out of foods,” CEO Alan Hahn told Reynolds.

Their mycoprotein product can block the taste receptors on the tongue that pick up bitterness — a common complaint with artificial sweeteners like aspartame. According to Hahn, the company’s mycoprotein flavor additive is already being used in over 100 beverages. 

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