There are three main fermentation types used in the production of alternative proteins:
The oldest of our biotechnology processes, traditional fermentation has been used for millennia by civilizations across the world to produce and preserve food and beverages such as wine and cheese. In the production of alternative proteins, the traditional fermentation process uses microbes to alter the flavor and/or functionality of plant-based ingredients. For example, Better Nature uses this food process to transform soybeans into delicious and more nutritious tempeh.
The answer to the world’s growing demand for animal protein alternatives, biomass fermentation uses microbial biomass itself as a food ingredient. Microorganisms with a high-protein content and the potential to grow rapidly, such as algae and fungi, are encouraged to reproduce and then used to create protein-rich meat and dairy alternatives. Well-known examples include Quorn’s mycoprotein and iwi’s algae-based products.
In order to produce specific functional ingredients, precision fermentation uses microorganisms as cell factories; a gene that encodes the target ingredient is inserted into the host-microbe which is then cultivated in a fermentation tank, producing the target in large quantities. The target is subsequently purified and often dried to a powder form for easy addition to alternative meat and dairy products. Examples include Impossible Food’s heme protein burger and MeliBio’s bee-free honey.
After securing $435m of investment capital in 2020 alone, microbial fermentation is quickly materializing as the third pillar in the alternative protein industry, alongside plant-based and cultivated meat. In fact, the industry as a whole can benefit from the unique advantages provided by the various types of fermentation.
Traditional fermentation can further refine ingredients we already have readily available, such as waste products and low-value byproducts. This process can optimize numerous factors including nutrition content, digestibility, flavor, and texture.
Fermentation requires simple and inexpensive feedstocks and can be manufactured across a network of localized production facilities, reducing transport costs as well as land and water inputs.
Not only is it less resource intensive, but it is also an incredibly efficient method of producing protein; unlike animal livestock, microbes grow exponentially, doubling in quantity in a matter of hours.
The fermentation of microorganisms occurs in bioreactors, which are space efficient and easy to scale. What’s more, many of the popular species used for biomass fermentation contain more than 50% of dry weight protein; approximately 20% more than chicken and 25% more than beef.
The applications of fermentation are widespread, providing benefits from an individual level to advantages for the planet as a whole.
Fermentation products don’t require the farming of animals on an industrial scale. They contain many of the desirable nutrients found in animal products but without the undesirables, such as antibiotics and hormones. Replacing animal-derived proteins will also reduce the likelihood of zoonotic diseases.
In addition to requiring less water and land usage, fewer pollutants and GHG emissions are produced. Furthermore, as the field of fermentation advances further, there are progressively more useful alternative protein products and applications than ever before.
Fermentation may be ancient biotechnology but there remains a lot left to be discovered. Key players in the industry have a number of opportunities across the value chain with which to advance the field.
Many extremophilic bacteria are a prime target for future developments. For example, these can be successfully utilized to mitigate fermentation issues such as microbial contamination, energy consumption, and freshwater shortage. In addition to working with new microorganism strains, further modifications can be made to current lines to increase efficiency or produce new ingredients.
Other opportunities to advance fermentation include the development of new and existing technology, such as improved fermentation incubators and bioreactors, as well as the refinement of nutrient-rich feedstocks to boost bioconversion.
Finally, the range of animal-based products that are yet to spawn alternatives is endless. The precision fermentation market has produced substantial breakthroughs in recent years and there is plenty of space for more to come.
For example, Harmony manufactured the first human breast milk-based infant formula to deliver nutrition much closer to breast milk than any cow’s milk formula, and Melt & Marble can mimic any fat structure, as well as create completely new and better fats, without using any animals.
The possibilities are immense.