René Floris: Where do single cell, microbial proteins fit into the non-animal protein landscape?
Fred van de Velde: While many alternative proteins are being created from ‘traditional’ and familiar plant sources such as nuts, oats, peas, etc., companies continue to develop novel ways to create proteins from various non-animal sources. Technologies such as precision fermentation open up the possibility of ‘animal proteins without an animal’, by using microorganisms to produce specific milk proteins, for example. Others involve turning single cell organisms into a protein-rich biomass through fermentation.
In the latter, a microorganism – such as algae, fungi, bacteria or yeast – is used to ferment a feedstock, to grow a protein-containing biomass. The process requires carbon, nitrogen and energy, but this leaves plenty of variables to work with. For example, a sugar-based feedstock already provides both the carbon and the energy. On the other hand, if you use an alternative feedstock such as natural gas, you must then add energy, such as electricity, and nitrogen, which can be found in the air.
The feedstock is often made of residue from other industries, such as food processing or alcohol manufacturing. You can even use recycled CO2. These possibilities can support very powerful green messaging around turning ‘waste’ into healthy food, for example.
RF: What are the challenges involved in developing a fermented protein-rich biomass and then turning it into a usable food ingredient?
FvdV: Often it is smaller, knowledge-based companies taking on these innovative developments, perhaps spin-offs from universities, etc. This means their levels of technology readiness can vary. Some are at a very early point, where they have identified a promising microorganism but haven’t yet grown biomass or produced the specific proteins they are aiming for. Others may already be commercialising their protein-rich biomass as an animal- or aquafeed.
But taking a promising microorganism and basic biomass, and turning them into a usable ingredient for the food industry, is a very complex journey. For example, you need to purify the protein, identify its suitability for different food products, refine the extraction, and possibly even create food prototypes. Each of these steps requires specific skills, equipment and expertise that the company fermenting the protein may not have internally, so outsourcing could offer an efficient way to advance the fermented biomass from extraction to final product.
RF: How do you determine what types of food products a fermented non-animal protein is suitable for?
FvdV: Companies producing and selling animal feed biomass often don’t need to purify the protein: they just dry the biomass and add it to the feed. So, the first step is to extract some protein, and do a ‘rough’ purification. This allows you to begin identifying the protein and determining the protein content.
Functionality screening then provides insight into the basic characteristics of the protein that are important for food production: solubility, emulsification, foaming and gelation. This first screening can already provide some ideas for areas of application: a protein that emulsifies well might be suitable as an egg alternative, for a ‘mayonnaise’ product for example, while a protein with good gelation characteristics could work as a meat substitute. On the other hand, this same gelling ability might make the protein unsuitable for a ready-to-drink beverage. ‘Negative’ characteristics that might pop up include colour or an off taste or smell, which could potentially limit the protein’s usability.
This is why it is important to take a holistic look from the very start: simply knowing the protein content, or even quality, is not enough. It requires a broad knowledge of fermentation, proteins, food processing, etc.
RF: Can you increase the usability or value of the protein?
FvdV: The optimal fermentation and extraction methods will depend on the properties of the protein, but also on how you want to use it. Do you need to isolate the protein, or just break the microbial cells open? Do you need to separate broken cells, or can you leave them together? For example, if the protein already has some