A burgeoning world population needs to eat. It’s not going to be possible, or even desirable, to obtain all that food from animals and the land available for growing plants is limited. The answer to this challenge may be beneath your feet.
Mycoprotein (protein from mushrooms) has been available for decades in Quorn™, targeted mostly to vegans. It has not really become a main-steam product. Until recently there was no real motivation for consumers to change from their traditional animal-based protein sources.
But all that is changing. Demand is increasing for animal-free protein and with the expiration of the Quorn™ processing patents new companies are entering the market. Innovative methods are being developed for creating the meat-like or fish-like texture consumers expect on their plates. A new book chapter by Emma Derbyshire and Tim Finnigan from Marlow Foods, UK, highlights the future potential for mycoprotein.
Move over animal and plant-based protein. The mushrooms are coming!
The time is right for mushroom power
By 2050, the global population is anticipated to reach 9.7 billion and these people increasingly desire a high protein diet. Demands for meat are expected to reach 376 million metric tonnes by 2030. Livestock production has increased dramatically since the late 1960s and is one of the greatest contributors to global warming and environmental degradation.
The population is also aging. By 2050 two billion of us will be aged 60 years or older. We are recommended to increase protein intake as we age (from 0.8 g/kg body weight to 1.2g protein/kg body weight). Following this advice would put even further strain on food production.
Add the increasing concern for animal welfare and warnings about over consumption of red meat and the time is right for new products based on mushroom protein, mycoprotein based foods.
Find, and then tame, your mushroom
Quorn™ is made from non-pathogenic micro fungus F. venenatum, which was first identified in the 1960s just a few miles from where I grew up in, Buckinghamshire, UK. One of more than 10,000 species of fungi, it literally was growing beneath my feet.
In the Quorn™ process the fungi are grown in huge vats. They are fed with a continuous stream of nutrients and the mycelium quickly expand. Once they reach the desired mass the broth is heated to a temperature that destroys proteases – the enzymes that the mushroom was using to break down protein. The process leaves RNAses active and these act on the mycelium themselves reducing RNA content to less than 2%, which is a regulatory requirement.
The mycelium is then centrifuged to remove the liquid it grew in, and compacted to form a paste. It is mixed with binders and favoring agents before being shaped, cooked and frozen.
After 20 years the patents filed in 1985 by Marlow Foods, the makers of Quorn™, expired. New companies were able to make mycoprotein products using the previously patented processes. They have tamed different strains fungi and developed new methods for processing to create products that more closely mimic the taste, cooking behavior, and particularly the texture of animal-based materials.
The microstructure (always) matters
Mycoprotein’s meaty texture starts with the branching, thread-like mycelium. These structures can be extensive. The largest living organism on Earth Is a 3.5-square-mile fungus that has been living in the same spot in Malheur National Forest in Oregon for more than 10,000 years.
This thread-like structure is also created when they the fungi are brought indoors and grown in fermenters 40 meters high. When the material is frozen (a key part of the process) ice crystals push the strands together, yielding bundles that give mycoprotein products a meat-like bite.
This texture provides a key difference between mycoprotein-based meat alternatives and those created from soy or other vegetable sources. Plant-protein must be cooked and extruded to create a textured material. Microscopic analysis reveals that even after this extreme processing the structure of the plant protein is not particularly close to that of meat, such as chicken. The mycoprotein, with minimal processing, already has the stranded texture of lean meat.
Food from waste
Another plus for mycoprotein is that mushrooms are not especially fussy about their food source. In nature they are the great recyclers, helping to break down waste material on the forest floor. The original F. venenatum fungus was found on a compost heap
In just the last year numerous research papers have been published on valorization of waste to create future mycoprotein-based foods including:
- Valorization of bread waste to produce mycoprotein (open access)
- Mycoprotein production from agricultural residues such as rice-straw (open access)
- Using the marine fungi paradendryphiella salina to produce mycoprotein from seaweed waste,
- Using the fungi mucor indicus to produce both mycoprotein and bioethanol from waste after apple juice extraction
New companies and products: creating the future of mycoprotein based foods
A slew of new companies are developing products based on mycoprotein.
Food that is healthy
Emma Derbyshire and Tim Finnigan highlight mushroom-based protein, mycoprotein, as a promising futuristic food source that may also improve health. They highlight studies which have revealed cholesterol-lowering effects, value in diabetes management and in regulating blood lipids.
Mycoprotein is a good source of fiber which is definitely an unmet nutritional need. In the UK, average fiber intakes for adults aged 19–64 years are approximately19g daily, which is 11g lower than the recommended amounts (around 30g per day), and significantly lower than the 50 g per day recommended by recent research to improve life quality and lifespan.
Mycoprotein also provides choline, an essential nutrient that some have highlighted as a concern in vegetarian diets. Mycelium-based food provides choline levels that are similar to those found in eggs or beef steak.
It seems that the food that is good for our planet is also good for us.
Read “Mycoprotein: A futuristic portrayal,” by Emma Derbyshire and Tim Finnigan from Marlow Foods, UK. Chapter 16 in Future Foods published in December 2021. Purchase from Amazon.
Read “Growing a circular economy with fungal biotechnology”, a white paper written by Vera Meyer, Technische Universität Berlin, with multiple coauthors. Published in Fungal Biology Biotechnology in 2020. Download the open access review from Springer Nature.
Read more about the history of Quorn in Watch Out, Beyond Burgers—the Fungi Renaissance Is Here, by Matt Reynolds, Wired Magazine, August 8, 2021.
Watch an excellent YouTube video to learn more about the Fy protein developed by Natures Fynd.