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Is precision fermentation the key to authentic alt protein?

The taste, texture, and nutritional value of alternative meat and dairy have made significant progress in recent years but to win over more consumers, the substitutes have to be as good as, if not better than, animal-based products.

That’s where precision fermentation comes in.

This key emerging technology allows food manufacturers to do far more than simply mimic the sensory and functional properties of meat and dairy. Instead, it has unlocked the potential to create organic molecules indistinguishable from their animal-derived equivalents. Nevertheless, it is not without its challenges.

Before deciding whether this approach is right for your company, you’ll need a thorough understanding of the latest research and technology, as well as the agility to navigate the complexities of the precision fermentation industry.

This article provides a fundamental overview, outlines the 3 step precision fermentation process, and details some key considerations and challenges that present opportunities for continued innovation within this field.

What is precision fermentation?

Precision fermentation opens up a whole new world beyond plant-based replicas (e.g. extruded plant proteins) and traditionally fermented products (e.g. tempeh); it involves the programming or optimization of microbes to enable them to produce a specific product, such as enzymes, fats, proteins, vitamins, flavoring agents, and natural pigments.

In other words, the microbes act as hosts or “cell factories” that have the ability to make exact replicas of organic molecules. These replicas match or even exceed the functional and nutritional qualities of their animal counterparts.

Precision fermentation proteins and other organic molecules can subsequently be combined with additional elements to form a product that tastes and performs identically to the animal product it aims to replace.

Fermentation technologies can be segmented into 3 categories: traditional, biomass, and precision fermentation

How does precision fermentation work?

A broad range of complex organic molecules can be produced through precision fermentation, whether bioidentical to a molecule existing in nature, a modified version of an existing molecule, or an entirely new molecule.
Maya Benami, PhD
Fermentation scientist & R&D advisor

Precision fermentation is achieved via a 3 step process:

Step 1. Selection from nature (indigenous)

A strain is identified that naturally produces a target molecule as a metabolite.

Alternative step 1. Transgenesis (foreign)

Genetic material is taken from a donor organism or genetic library, or artificially sequenced after being identified in a sequence database, such as Shiru’s Flourish.

The selected sequence is inserted into the genome of a host microorganism, which reads the gene sequence and produces the target molecule as a metabolite.

Saccharomyces cerevisiae is one of the best-characterized model eukaryotic microbial hosts

Step 2. Strain optimization

Various methods are employed to optimize growth rate and yield, improve stress tolerance (e.g. to temperature or acidity), prevent undesirable byproducts, or establish more favorable substrates.

These may be non-targeted techniques such as selective breeding or traditional mutagenesis, or genome editing techniques involving deletion, insertion, or substitution of genetic material.

Step 3. Fermentation

The selected microorganism is cultivated on a large scale under controlled conditions in a fermentation tank, which is filled with a nutrient-rich medium primarily composed of a carbon source (most often glucose).

These nutrients are consumed by the microorganism in order to multiply and produce the target molecule in large quantities.

The fermented broth is subsequently processed in order to recover and purify the target molecule.

Microorganism strains are engineered or optimized to produce a target molecule in sufficient quantities

Examples of precision fermentation foods

Precision fermentation is not a new technique. In fact, it’s been used for decades to safely and efficiently produce medicine, therapeutics, and consumer goods.

For example, 80% of the rennet used to make cheese and many of the common vitamins used in fortified foods and supplements are produced via this method.

More recently, the technique has been applied on a wider scale and precision fermentation food is experiencing a new wave of interest.

Some of the novel metabolites receiving significant attention include whey, casein, egg white proteins, and heme.

At present, precision fermentation milk dominates the innovation landscape, with companies such as ReMilk, Perfect Day, and TurtleTree all producing milk proteins that remove cows from the equation.

Navigating the precision fermentation industry

While precision fermentation is full of potential for the food industry, there are a few barriers to consider before bringing your product to market. The following are some examples of the challenges you may face along the way:

The regulatory process for precision fermentation foods

Novel food ingredients must secure regulatory approval, which can take up to 2 years.

The approval process can be very complex, which is why companies are recommended to work alongside industrial fermentation experts to competently navigate regulations.

Hitherto, 7 precision fermentation-derived alt protein ingredients have received GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status in the US and only 1 has been submitted for approval in the EU.

The regulatory frameworks can differ considerably across governing bodies and countries typically have special rules for foods produced using GMOs.

Impossible Foods’ soy leghemoglobin, which has full FDA approval in the US and is considered GRAS, submitted a GMO dossier in 2019 for approval in the EU and is still under evaluation.

This is due to the presence of the host strain DNA in the final product, which is therefore considered GMO.

To ensure efficient approval of your ingredient, you should focus on the safety of your production strain.

Opting for a strain that has QPS (Qualified Presumption of Safety) status will facilitate quicker approval decisions since various safety tests can be waived. Removing host DNA and guaranteeing the purity of your novel ingredient will also significantly speed up the process.

Consumer reactions to precision fermentation

There are about 30,000 edible plants in the world but we get the majority of our calories from just four crops.

Precision fermentation and the latest AI technology provide us with a unique opportunity to exploit these ingredients.

However, despite the vast amount of ingredient combinations awaiting discovery - leading to improved functional and nutritional qualities of alternative proteins and an enhanced culinary experience - companies must mitigate mistrust surrounding precision fermentation.

Transparency makes trust possible, and trust is an essential foundation for any long-lasting relationship between consumer and brand

Transparency is key to building consumer trust and excitement about the possibilities of this technology. Clear messaging regarding the GMO status of precision fermentation foods and details of the fermentation process may help to alleviate suspicion.

Moving forward with precision fermentation

Precision fermentation is a key piece of the puzzle for producing genuine alternative meat and dairy products.

Investing in this technology can unlock opportunities for growth by improving the quality of products, inspiring loyalty, and increasing profit margins.

However, consumer perceptions, fermentation technology, and regulatory processes need to be carefully considered and managed in order to successfully bring your novel ingredient to market.

If you’re ready to explore the precision fermentation industry and looking for a consulting partner with extensive expertise, please reach out to us at Bright Green Partners, the leading alternative protein consultancy.

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