Alternative protein companies need to stop advertising their brand as the most ethical choice and instead appeal to consumer’s taste buds. 

“Sometimes plant-based food companies don’t really market themselves as food,” says Thomas Rossmeissl, head of global marketing for Eat Just, Inc., which develops plant-based “eggs” and cell-cultivated meat. “There’s this inclination to talk about mission. We say ‘We’re good for the planet,’ ‘It’s good for you,’ ‘It’s good for animals’ and obviously that’s all true and it’s admirable and it’s what drives me in our company. But it can come off like we’re sort of apologizing, that we’re negotiating with consumers, that a consumer is sacrificing something delicious to get something ethical or healthy.”

“People not buying (traditional)meat and cheese because an animal was killed or tortured. They buy because it tastes great.”

Irina Gerry concurs. Gerry is the chief marketing officer for Change Foods, an animal-free dairy brand that will launch their product in 2023. Alternative protein brands need to “flip the script from plant-based, rationalizing the food choices.” Brands need to help consumers feel that purchasing an alternative protein is a “natural choice rather than a sacrifice.”

The two spoke on a panel Insights on Consumer Perceptions of Alternative Proteins at the virtual Good Food Conference. The conference is put on by the Good Food Institute, an international nonprofit that promotes plant- and cell-based meat.

Wide Consumer Base Wanting Animal-Free

Animal-free is the main driver for customers to buy alternative products. The alternative protein industry is not just marketing to vegans, they’re also selling to flexitarians and omnivores concerned about welfare. Ninety-four percent of Eat Just consumers consume some type of animal protein. 

“Sustainability is skyrocketing and potentially could cross over health as the main motivator, especially in the younger population,” Gerry says.

The modern American household family fridge is divided. There may be three types of eggs in there — conventional, cage-free and plant-based — and three types of milk — dairy milk, almond and oat. Consumers as young as 12 are the ones educating themselves on alternative proteins.

“We’re going to see this younger generation drive families to plant-based solutions,” Rossmeissl says.

Staying Honest, Maintaining Trust

Transparency will be central to public adoption. Laura Reiley, a reporter for The Washington Post who moderated the panel, noted “there hasn’t been tremendous transparency” with the alt protein market. She’s written about the market since its beginning and notes, because there’s intellectual property and so much research and development dollars, most companies have kept their food shrouded in mystery.

“We don’t want to sort of follow the example of the conventional industry. We can do better than that,”  Rossmeissl says. “On the cultivated side, we have a huge responsibility to get this right. Not just as a company but as an industry, we can’t screw this up.”

Perceived unnaturalness by consumers of alt protein is a challenge. Using the term lab-grown “is disparaging to us as an industry” he continues, “but I think the best way we can address that is by being really honest and what’s in it and how it’s made.”

Gerry notes 90% of dairy cheese sold globally is made with non-animal remnants through precision fermentation — and that’s been the predominant way traditional cheese is made for over 20 years. It’s the same technology Change Food’s animal-free cheese uses. 

“(These traditional cheeses) made through precision fermentation, they’re labeled under natural and oftentimes organic cheese products and nobody’s grown a third leg and nobody’s freaked out, right?” Gerry continues. “But now we’ve added one more element of that cheese — removing the cow from the cheese — and everybody seems to be greatly concerned.”

Price and regulation are big roadblocks for alternative proteins, an industry that is expanding rapidly, as more consumers turn to animal-free products out of concern for their health, the environment and animal welfare.

“People love meat but, at the end of the day, they’re not really attached to how it got to their plates,” says Brett Thompson, co-founder and CEO of Mzansi Meat, a cultivated meat company in South Africa. Thompson spoke at the TFA webinar The Forefront of Alt-Proteins in Africa with another leader in the South African alternative protein industry, Leah Bessa, PhD, co-founder and CSO of De Novo Dairy.

Alt-protein companies all over the world are bringing cultivated meat and dairy to consumers, but Africa as a continent has lagged.. Thompson founded Mzansi Meat Co. in 2020 and hopes to bring cell-cultured beef, chicken and braai sausages (traditional South African BBQ-style sausages) to retail shelves next year. De Novo Dairy, formed in 2021, is using precision fermentation to create milk proteins for animal-free dairy products, but without cows.

This novel biotechnology is new in South Africa, but it’s a critical element in addressing food security problems in Africa. Africans don’t consume enough food, especially protein, and as drought continues to plague the continent, raising animals for traditional meat products is becoming less and less sustainable.

“It’s a very different conversation to the rest of the world,” Thompson adds. “It’s about getting more protein into more people’s stomachs and plates.”

Big Production Costs in New Alt-Protein Space

Interest is high from investors, but scaling from pilot stage to large-scale production is challenging. Equipment is costly and labor is difficult to recruit to a new industry.

In a survey conducted by Mzansi, 50% of South Africans were willing to purchase alternative protein products — and they’d pay a higher price than for traditional meat.

“But we just got to make it available,” Thompson says. “That’s going to be the biggest hurdle for us, getting it into retail and getting it in front of people so that they can make that decision.” 

Bessa says that, critical to the adoption of animal-free dairy, the consumer must receive “nature identical” products. These must replicate the taste, texture and nutrition level of traditional dairy — and precision fermentation is a “powerful tool” to helping achieve that goal.

“It’s going to be a very easy sell,” Bessa adds. “What’s really great about precision fermentation is, as a technology, it’s not limited to just one or two proteins. You can really explore other functional elements and other functional proteins across the food industry. So we’re really looking beyond just dairy, but we want to solve a big problem in the dairy industry because it’s very unsustainable.”

The Good, the Bad & the Ugly of Government Regulation

Bessa notes regulation is a bigger challenge than technology for De Novo. Three governmental bodies in Africa oversee food production — the departments of trade, health and agriculture.  Mzansi is exploring launching in food service, as an alternative to the long, arduous process of securing government approval to sell a product at retail.

“Consumers want something that’s familiar but, now with regulatory hurdles, if you have to classify and label them differently, then how familiar would that label be to consumers?” says Josephine Wee, assistant professor of food science at Penn State University (and a TFA Advisory Board member). Wee moderated the discussion with Thompson and Bessa. “I think it’s an important conversation as well because it might be confusing if it tastes just like milk but is labeled completely different.” 

Transparency is a priority for both Mzansi and De Novo. Thompson says companies preaching sustainability can’t be “cagey…or you send out messages that are convoluted.” Bessa agrees, noting a young company may never recover from bad publicity over transparency issues.

“Working with new technologies, especially in food, which is such a personal thing for people, you almost want to get ahead of assumptions, you want to be the one putting out the information and the correct information,” Bessa says. “That’s why it’s so important because you’re working with a novel technology,  you’re feeding people with this novel technology, and so it’s important to be transparent so that they feel comfortable and they can relate to what they’re consuming.”

A new wood alternative made from a byproduct of kombucha brewing waste  won this year’s James Dyson Award, which celebrates problem-solving design. The material, called Pyrus,  was invented by sustainable-design student Gabe Tavas. Tavas’ company, Symmetry,  makes small items from Pyrus that replicate exotic woods like mahogany or purpleheart (two wood types found in the rainforest and endangered by aggressive deforestation).

Tavas was inspired to create Pyrus after seeing  designers use kombucha bacterial cellulose (the  film that grows on top of the beverage during brewing) in various projects. Tavas was struck by the fact that trees are  made from cellulose, and he began experimenting in his dorm room with the waste from his own kombucha brewing. He eventually partnered with local Chicago producer, KombuchAde, which supplies Tavas with 250 pounds of cellulose a day.

Pyrus is made by pouring cellulose into a mold, adding agar (an algae-based binding gel), and then dehydrating and compressing  it. The synthetic wood can be sanded and cut, but will decompose in contact with water.

Read more (Fast Company)

Alt Fish Protein Launch

A female-led food startup is the first in the world to develop a whole-muscle cut of alternative seafood “meat.” Aqua Cultured Foods, based in Chicago, uses biomass fermentation technology to produce alternative fish products, like filets of tuna and white fish, calamari and shrimp.

The company  makes  seafood analogs using a proprietary strain of fungi. Vegconomist describes their microbial fermentation process as “growing” protein rather than food processing of a plant-based product. Fermentation allows Aqua Cultured Foods to mimic the taste, texture and nutrients of fish.

“Biomass fermentation delivers a whole, unprocessed seafood alternative that is very different from plant-based seafoods available today. We can adjust the production conditions and inputs to create a different texture, shape, or nutritional profile,” says Anne Palermo, CEO & Co-Founder of Aqua Cultured Foods. “The excitement around these products is coming from several sectors, including restaurant and foodservice as well as fresh refrigerated set for grocery. In the same way some vegan products are now featured in the meat department, ours can be sold alongside animal-based fish at the seafood counter.”

Read more (Vegconomist)

Investors in alternative protein don’t see the market slowing anytime soon, but they do anticipate a shakeout. Alternative proteins are a mere 1-2% of the $1.4 trillion meat industry. The current giants of the alternative space — Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods — are just the beginning. Industry investors predict the next challengers will come from fermentation, air and mycoprotein sources. 

“We saw the alternative milk market take 20% of that (dairy) market. We think that [in] the meat market, the same thing could happen,” says Darren Streiler, managing director of ADM Ventures. Streiler calls products utilizing precision-based fermentation, gas-based fermentation and fungi the “next wave of alternative proteins.” 

Utilizing fungi, also known as mycoprotein, involves fermenting the spores of specific mushrooms to produce protein-rich food. (Fungi on parasites and yeasts are also used, but not as frequently as mushrooms). “Flexitarian” consumers, Streiler adds, are seeking these hybrid food products.

Streiler was on a panel of investors discussing trends at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) annual meeting and expo, IFT FIRST. Sanjeev Krishnan, chief investment officer and managing director of S2G Ventures, and Jeff Grogg, managing director of JPG Resources, joined Streiler. The three agreed that taste, nutrition, affordability and sustainability are key to succeeding in the alternative protein market. 

“I think we’re at the iPod phase and not even in the iPhone phase of this protein revolution,” Krishnan says. “That transition from iPod to iPhone I think is going to require more focus on taste, particularly the fat side of the equation, to get that umami feel of traditional protein. And I see a lot more opportunity to innovate.”

The alternative protein market is still dominated by plant-based options but, as arable land becomes more scarce, sustainably-produced protein will be critical.

Why Sustainable Protein?

It takes two years for a steak to get from farm-to-fork — raising cattle contributes significantly to carbon gases, pollutes water and requires a large amount of land. The world is facing an impending global food crisis: there will be 10 billion people to feed in 2050, requiring a 70% increase in food production. But the amounts of farming land and fresh water are declining, while greenhouse gases increase. Air Protein founder Lisa Dyson thinks fermentation can help mitigate these trends.

“We’re taking something that’s similar to fermentation — you can think about it as fermentation reimagined —  we’re taking cultures, but with the typical fermentation process, you actually emit carbon dioxide. We’re reversing that. We’re actually using carbon dioxide as an input instead,” Dyson says.

Dyson also spoke at the IFT event. Chef Carla Hall, who introduced Dyson, called Air Protein “the rocket science of food.”

Closed-Loop Carbon Cycle

Founded in 2019, Air Protein uses  a half-century-old food technology originally intended to feed astronauts on long space missions. In the sixties, NASA discovered microbes — called hydrogenotrophs — could harvest energy from carbon dioxide in the air and, in a matter of hours or days, turn it into nutrients. The process is completely carbon negative — astronauts in a spaceship breathe out carbon; that gas is captured and fed to cultures, which in turn create a protein. 

Culinary techniques can then be applied to that protein, mimicking the textures and flavors of a juicy steak or chicken breast. Dyson says innovators in alternative proteins  still call this food meat.

“It’s the new meat of tomorrow, the future of meat as it were,” she says. And hydrogenotrophs don’t require light or arable land to grow. The process, according to Dyson, is “immensely scalable.” An Air Protein “farm” could be put anywhere  you could build a brewery. 

“Imagine this process that is essentially super efficient, going from air to plant in a matter of hours, a matter of days, versus years,” she adds. “So this is a very fast process and it allows us to make food and feed the nations, the growing population in a way that uses minimal land, minimal water, and is actually carbon negative.”

Fermented Fungi Forge Forward 

The alternative protein industry continues to explode in growth — and fermented mushrooms are leading the pack as the preferred meatless protein. In a recent article, the World Economic Forum highlighted mycoprotein, the protein-rich, flavorless “foodstuff” made from fermenting mushrooms. Companies creating alt proteins with fungi “are starting to sprout almost overnight,” the article notes.

Mycoprotein has a big advantage over plant-based proteins, as it has a meat-like texture that can then be flavored to taste like animal meat. Plant proteins must go through further processing to replicate a meat-like texture, and many plant proteins retain the taste of the original plant.

The mycoprotein production process was developed and patented by UK brand Quorn in 1985. But their patent expired in 2010, and  the food technology is now available for all.

Read more (World Economic Forum)

More specialty coffee producers are developing unique approaches to their coffee bean fermentation, isolating native microorganisms to create a flavorful cup or  working closely with rural farmers to utilize fermentation control techniques on small-scale operations.

“Practically all the coffee we drink has been fermented in one way or another. But there is huge room for improvement, innovation and development in the realm of coffee fermentation,” says Mario Fernández, PhD, Technical Officer with the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA). The SCA partnered with The Fermentation Association for the webinar The State of the Art in Coffee Fermentation

Fernández continues: “Coffee is produced by millions of small coffee producers around the tropics that have very little capital to invest in fermentation equipment. Oftentimes, the price is too low for them to add fermentation controls as part of the cost equation. Therefore, for perhaps 99.9% of coffee in the world, it undergoes wild fermentation, in which the microbes grow on the mass of mucilage in a wild fashion and the coffee producer only controls certain parameters, such as the length of the fermentation.” 

Two industry experts on the forefront of coffee fermentation technique and technology joined Fernández — Felipe Ospina, CEO of Colors of Nature Group (multinational specialty coffee trader) and Rubén Sorto, CEO of BioFortune Group (a coffee, upcycled and food ingredient manufacturer based in Honduras). 

Post Harvest Processing Technology

Sorto is adapting fermentation technology to coffee, mapping the microbiota of the bacteria and yeasts that are present at Biofortune Group’s farms.

“We realized that fermentation was one of the key aspects of the coffee production that hadn’t been addressed,” Sorto said, noting fermentation is controlled in industries like dairy, wine, beer and bread but not in coffee. “We learned that our soil, our water, our coffee trees, our leaves, our [coffee] cherries, had a large compendium of bacteria and yeast that were involved in the posterior fermentation process…some of the yeasts and bacteria were definitely beneficial and were urgently needed during the fermentation but some of them were not.”

To maximize flavor, they focus on that complex array of bacteria and yeasts, preferably indigenous to the countries of origin. These microorganisms thrive in their local environment, reflecting altitude and temperature. To control the fermentation of those bacteria and yeasts, Biofortune reduces the variables, including monitoring pH levels, alcohol content and container contaminants.

“If you are able to control the fermentation, you are also able to offer a higher-quality product, a consistent quality product…and that’s what the market is looking for, consistent quality in a cup,” Sorto says.

Educating Coffee Farmers

Ospina, meanwhile, is researching fermentation techniques accessible to small-holder coffee producers and training them. The goal is for them to understand the role of each microorganism, discover how to use it in fermentation, then scale that knowledge to small-scale operations, so they can produce incredible coffees. 

At La Cereza Research Center, the Colors of Nature facility in southern Colombia, they are experimenting with fermentation processes. Some alcoholic fermentations result in coffees that produce coffees that taste of whiskey, cognac, champagne, sangria or even beer. Lactic fermentations might produce coffees with flavors of banana, mango, papaya, grapefruit or even cacao. “This is showing us the potential is humongous,” Ospina says.

“Wild fermentation is the ultimate expression of the terroir and it’s very important for us because the terroir produces unique coffees,” Ospina says. “The thing is, we don’t understand wild fermentation yet, but I’m very against demonizing wild fermentation. Why? Because we have seen hundreds and hundreds of outstanding, amazing coffees from all over the world that have been produced with wild fermentation.”

There are challenges. Food safety is a big concern. Ospina teaches the use of disposable gloves at the farm level to prevent contaminants, and to put a new plastic bag in the bioreactor for each batch of beans to avoid cross-contamination. 

The cost of implementing fermentation technology can be high. Sorto recommends to start by buying each farmer a pocket pH meter and a refractometer to closely monitor the fermentation.

“Translating science and technology to small farmers with very little investment will help them increase the possibility of a higher income because if you are not able to control fermentation, you are risking the effort of a one year harvest,” Sorto advises.

Will fermentation be key to the future of the food industry? A third of food produced globally is thrown out, but an article in Forbes explores a promising solution — more companies are using fermentation as a way to decrease food waste. 

A new Danish startup, Resauce, gives companies the resources to turn their food waste into fermented products. Their success stories include a farmer who made fermented onion paste and sauerkraut from excess onions and cabbages, and a vineyard owner who converted grapes into a honey-fermented grape syrup. Each producer then sold their product under their own brand.

Resauce founder Philip Bindesbøll said: “Now we can give companies an innovative product, financial benefits, as well as a positive sustainable story.”

Read more (Forbes)

Fermented foods are produced through controlled microbial growth — but how do industry professionals manage those complex microorganisms? Three panelists, each with experience in a different field and at a different scale — restaurant chef, artisanal cheesemaker and commercial food producer — shared their insights during a TFA webinar, Managing Fermented Food Microbes to Control Quality

“Producers of fermented foods rely on microbial communities or what we often call microbiomes, these collections of bacteria yeasts and sometimes even molds to make these delicious products that we all enjoy,” says Ben Wolfe, PhD, associate professor at Tufts University, who moderator the webinar along with Maria Marco, PhD, professor at University of California, Davis (both are TFA Advisory Board members). 

Wolfe continued: “Fermenters use these microbial communities every day right, they’re working with them in crocks of kimchi and sauerkraut, they’re working with them in a vat of milk as it’s gone from milk to cheese, but yet most of these microbial communities are invisible. We’re relying on these communities that we rarely can actually see or know in great detail, and so it’s this really interesting challenge of how do you manage these invisible microbial communities to consistently make delicious fermented foods.”

Three panelists joined Wolfe and Marco: Cortney Burns (chef, author and current consultant at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, a farmstead restaurant), Mateo Kehler (founder and cheesemaker at Jasper Hill in Vermont, a dairy farm and creamery) and Olivia Slaugh (quality assurance manager at wildbrine | wildcreamery in California, producers of fermented vegetables and plant-based dairy). 

Fermentation mishaps are not the same for producers because “each kitchen is different, each processing facility, each packaging facility, you really have to tune in to what is happening and understand the nuance within a site,” Marco notes. “Informed trial and error” is important. 

The three agreed that part of the joy of working in the culinary world is creating, and mistakes are part of that process.

“We have learned a lot over the years and never by doing anything right, we’ve learned everything we know by making mistakes,” says Kehler. 

One season at Jasper Hill, aspergillus molds colonized on the rinds of hard cheeses, spoiling them. The cheesemakers discovered that there had been a problem early on as the rind developed. They corrected this issue by washing the cheese more aggressively and putting it immediately into the cellar.

“For the record, I’ve had so many things go wrong,” Burns says. A koji that failed because a heating sensor moved, ferments that turned soft because the air conditioning shut off or a water kefir that became too thick when the ferment time was off. “[Microbes are] alive, so it’s a constant conversation, it’s a relationship really that we’re having with each and every one on a different level, and some of these relationships fall to the wayside or we forget about them or they don’t get the attention they need.”

Burns continues: “All these little safeguards need to be put in place in order for us to have continual success with what we’re doing, but we always learn from it. We move the sensor, we drop the temperature, we leave things for a little bit longer. That’s how we end up manipulating them, it’s just creating an environment that we know they’re going to thrive in.”

Slaugh distinguishes between what she calls “intended microbiology” — the microbes that will benefit the food you’re creating — and “unintended microbiology” — packaging defects, spoilage organisms or a contamination event. 

Slaugh says one of the benefits of working with ferments at a large scale at wildbrine is the cost of routine microbiological analysis is lower. But a mistake is stressful. She recounted a time when thousands of pounds of food needed to be thrown out because of a contaminant in packaging from an ice supplier.

“Despite the fact that the manufacturer was sending us a food-grade or in some cases a medical-grade ingredient, the container does not have the same level of sanitation, so you can’t really take these things for granted,” Slaugh says. 

Her recommendations include supplier oversight, a quality assurance person that can track defects and sample the product throughout fermentation and a detailed process flow diagram. That document, Slaugh advises, should go far beyond what producers use to comply with government food regulations. It should include minutiae like what scissors are used to cut open ingredient bags and the process for employees to change their gloves. 

“I think this is just an incredible time to be in fermented foods,” Kehler adds. “There’s this moment now where you have the arrival of technology. The way I described being a cheesemaker when I started making cheese almost 20 years ago was it was like being a god, except you’re blind and dumb. You’re unleashing these universes of life and then wiping them out and you couldn’t see them, you could see the impacts of your actions, but you may or may not have control. What’s happened since we started making cheese is now the technology has enabled us to actually see what’s happening. I think it’s this groundbreaking moment, we have the acceleration of knowledge. We’re living in this moment where we can start to understand the things that previously could only be intuited.”

Noma Goes DTC

Noma is coming into the home kitchen.

The fermentation-focused restaurant, lauded as one of the top restaurants in the world, is selling its first line of packaged products. Two garums — vegan Smoked Mushroom and vegetarian Sweet Rice and Egg — will soon be available to ship internationally through the brand’s website, Noma Projects

“It’s a space for us to channel our knowledge, our craft and experimentation into a new endeavor,” says René Redzepi, chef and co-owner of the Copenhagen-based restaurant. 

Redzepi shared details of the launch in a video on the site. Noma Projects will include pantry products and community-based initiatives, “a way for us to address issues we care about through the lens of food.” 

Noma’s Pantry Staples

The garums are Noma’s “take on a 1,000-year-old recipe that we’ve been developing over the past two decades.” Redzepi says the “potent, umami-based sauces” have been the “key to our success at Noma in our vegetarian and vegan menus. 

He hopes the garums will help more people cook plant-based meals, announcing in the video: “We want to help you bring more vegetables into your everyday cooking.” The garums provide the flavor of meat and fish without the animal. The website description notes: “Shifting towards a more plant-based diet is the easiest way for an individual to help the environment. We hope these garums will do the same for you that they’ve done for us, help inspire and create more delicious plant-based meals when you cook at home.”

These products were developed in Noma’s Fermentation Lab, where dozens of pantry staples were tested before landing on the garums. A garum is the “concentrated essence of its main ingredient” with a strong umami flavor, and Redzepi describes it to the WSJ. Magazine (the luxury magazine published by Wall Street Journal): “It has the potency of a soy sauce, except it tastes of what it is.” Both are brewed with koji rice, what Redzepi calls the “mother fungus.”

The garums are currently fermenting and will be ready for shipping in the fall or winter. The expected price point is $20-$35 for a bottle. 

And more garums are in the works. Noma Fermentation Lab director, Jason Ignacio White, says a roasted chicken wing garum is next. 

“It tastes like super chicken stock with umami,” White tells WSJ. Magazine, ”so it’s a familiar flavor, but there’s something about it that you can’t really put your finger on, that makes your tongue dance.”

Improving Profitability

Despite Noma’s expensive tabs — the 20-course tasting menu costs 2,800 Danish kroner (or around $447), and the wine pairing is another 1,800 Danish kroner (or around $287) — in the 18 years since it opened, the restaurant has hovered at only a 3% profit margin. Redzepi hopes Noma Projects will make more money. While it is “a family-run garage project,” its goal is to reach a million customers. 

Like many restaurants around the world, Noma shut down during the pandemic. They reopened as a burger and wine bar in June 2020, and the walk-up, outdoor dining experience was such a success that it became a permanent restaurant, POPL. 

Noma resumed regular operations on June 1, 2021. The pandemic closure allowed Redzepi and his team to finally tackle the retail brand, something he said they had debated for years.