Allergen-free fungi protein a ‘breakthrough’ in food ingredients: ‘We have a unique proposition from a sustainability and economic perspective’

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT

Pic: GettyImages/geckophotos
Pic: GettyImages/geckophotos

Related tags: alternative protein, fungi

This week, The Protein Brewery announced a €22m Series A investment to help scale up production of its fungi-based alternative protein Fermotein. FoodNavigator asks founder Wim de Laat what benefits the novel food ingredient will bring to manufacturers, consumers, and the planet.

The latest investment round, which brings the Dutch start-up’s total funding to €26m, was led by life science investor Novo Holdings and joined by new investors Roquette Ventures, of France’s Roquette Group, and US-headquartered alternative protein investor Unovis Asset Management.

“This funding is an important step in the development of The Protein Brewery,” ​founder Wim de Laat told FoodNavigator. “We will use the funding to continue our R&D, cover operational costs, as well as build a demo plant to up-scale our production of Fermotein.

“We have already gained a lot of experience from smaller scale pilot runs of Fermotein, this facility will enable the commercialisation of new food products based on the Fermotein ingredient.”

Replacing animals in the food chain

De Laat founded The Protein Brewery in January 2020, following the demerger of industrial biotechnology company BioscienZ – a developer of microbial fermentation technologies.

A molecular scientist, de Laat wanted to explore alternative ingredient options for the food industry that steered away from animal-based proteins. His primary objectives are to reduce global warming, animal suffering, and nitrogen emissions, all the while helping to feed growing populations.

“Providing food for a population of 10bn people by 2050 demands alternative scenario,” ​said de Laat.

“By continuously driving new technologies, we are able to face such challenges. It is an important driver in our mission to contribute to a more sustainable world, development novel ways of producing food proteins using fermentation technologies.”

Demand for alternative proteins is clearly there. In a global food market valued at €6.4trn, The Protein Brewery estimates the alternative protein sector to be worth at least €30bn, with ‘huge growth potential’.

Thomas Grotkjær, Principal at Novo Holdings, said of the investment: 
“On behalf of the syndicate I would like to share our excitement of being involved in The Protein Brewery and their breakthrough fermentation technology. The Fermotein product is nutritious, has a very sustainable profile, and is applicable to a wide range of products demanded by consumers. With this product, the company is entering a fast-growing alternative proteins market. We look forward to grow the company commercially with Wim and his team and the other investors.”

The start-up claims its first alternative protein not only has an ‘excellent nutritional profile’, but boasts ‘one of the lowest ecological footprints of all proteins’ – in both animal-based and animal-free categories.

Fermotein: The perfect ingredient?

The Protein Brewery has named its first alternative protein ingredient Fermotein.

“Our production technology comprises a unique combination of proprietary micro-organisms – or fungi – and an easy-to-operate brewing process,” ​the founder explained. “It has resulted in an alternative protein with an excellent nutritional profile.”

Specifically, the start-up says Fermotein is rich in proteins with a ‘very high content’ of amino acids, dietary fibre, essential fatty acids, minerals and vitamins.

From a sustainability perspective, Fermotein is ‘unparalleled’, noted the start-up, using just 1% of the land, 3% of the CO₂, and 5% of the water used by the beef industry.

protein brewery
Image source: The Protein Brewery

“With its sustainable profile – using very little land and water – it can be produced from a large variety of globally available crops, such as cassava, corn, potatoes, sugar beet, and sugar cane,” ​de Laat told this publication. The Protein Brewery believes that local production of proteins from local crops is a key competitive advantage.

De Laat continued: “The fungi do not need any vitamins or amino acids for very high growth rates, which makes its process more cost-effective and sustainable compared to yeasts or other fungi.”

Allergen-free

Importantly, Fermotein’s fungi-based protein is allergen-free – which cannot be said of all fungi-based alternative proteins.

The best known on the market is mycoprotein, made by Quorn Foods. Mycoprotein is known to cause allergic and gastrointestinal reactions in some people.

Indeed, a 2018 analysis of self-reported adverse reactions to mycoproteins, published in Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, ​revealed that of the 1,752 adverse reactions reported, 312 people experienced allergic reactions, including urticaria and anaphylaxis, within four hours of consumption.

The study authors concluded that mycoprotein may be causing numerous and sometimes life-threatening allergic and gastrointestinal reactions.

Fermotein, on the other hand, is ‘completely and fully allergen-free’, noted the start-up. “Most of the players in our field recognise that fungi are the best nutritional proposition compared to plants or animals. However, most of them exploring the species have high fungal allergy potential, or they produce mycotoxins and/or are too expensive and need a high capex for fast growth,” ​de Laat revealed.

Protein Brewery-005
Founder Wim de Laat wants to replace animals in the food chain / Pic: The Protein Brewery

“We have a unique proposition from a sustainability and economic perspective, but it requires a lot of technology and regulatory approval. It has therefore a high barrier to entry.”

Food applications and regulatory approval

Fermotein will be available in two formats: as a wet ‘cake’ product, as well as a dry powder form.

The wet product is designed for use in applications such as meat alternatives or processed meats. The dry version can be used in pasta and noodles, bakery products, protein bars, shakes, chocolate, and ice cream.

“Because our product is odourless, colourless, and tasteless, there is less need to add additional ingredients that producers of processed foods normally use,” ​we were told, “such as aromatics, masking agents, or flavours.”

Before Fermotein is used in food products, however, the novel ingredient must obtain regulatory approval. The Protein Brewery said it is ‘in the process’ already and expects to receive the green light in the US next year, with Europe expected in 2022.

“Our focus is now on the realisation of the demo plant. We are in the scale-up phase of our process and in the application process to get regulatory approval,” ​said the founder.

“Once regulatory approval has been obtained, we will be able to sell product and scale-up onwards. We constantly develop and improve our Fermotein product.”

De Laat also revealed there are some new alternative protein innovations in the pipeline, including a chicken egg-white alternative (ovalbumin), to be developed ‘without requiring any chickens’.

Source:Annals of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology
‘Self-reported adverse reactions associated with mycoprotein (Quorn-brand) containing foods’
Published March 19 2018
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.anai.2018.03.020
Authors: Michael F. Jacobson and Janna DePorter.

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