How Are Alternative Proteins Made? - Alt-Protein Primer #2

How plants, fungi, cells and more are made in to alternative proteins.

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Happy Tuesday Market Shakers. Welcome to the second instalment of our Alternative Protein Primer. Last week we learned all about the ingredients used to make alternative proteins. Today we’re going to explore the processes and technologies that turn these ingredients into alternatives.

To help us tackle this tricky topic, R&D Consultant, Scientific Writer and Microbiologist, Dr. Maya Benami offered to help guide us. Dr. Benami is a leading expert in alternative proteins and their production. She has helped dozens of investors and companies wrap their heads around this complex and worthwhile topic.

For starters, a caveat

There is no one way to make alternative proteins*! Even in the same technological category (plant-based, fermentation-based, etc.) every company has their own secret recipe for protein production. Most of these processes are proprietary and guarded more heavily than the recipe for Coca-Cola.

In fact, according to the Good Food Institute, this is one of the reasons the cost of alternative proteins is so high. Producers must factor in the cost of R&D for developing and re-developing components that make their proteins special. To preserve their IP, they develop the special ingredients in-house rather than outsourcing to a co-manufacturer, which often would be cheaper. They recoup these extra costs by increasing the price of their product.

All this chewing the fat is to say, we’ve done our best to give a good overview of the key and up-and-coming technologies used to make alt-protein. If you want more detailed information, let us know in the comments or by replying to this email! 

*For the purpose of this series, we are using the Good Food Institute’s (GFI) definition of alternative protein: meat (including seafood), egg, or dairy products that are plant-based, cultivated, or fermentation-derived. 

How are plant-based proteins made?

Plant-based proteins cut out the middleman. Rather than feeding plants to livestock to grow meat, they turn the plants directly into animal-free analogues. Not a single animal is involved. With many potential base ingredients, plant-based proteins are an endless field of opportunity. 

So, how do companies extract the protein from plants to use in animal protein analogues?

Firstly, the plants are harvested.

The plant ingredient is (then) processed into a form of a powder or flour of differing grain sizes depending on the purpose and required functionality. Oils can be separated out of the protein powder or flour and re-used or sold off for other purposes.

Dr. Maya Benami

On the topic of separating oils, the powders may be defatted to increase the protein concentration. Dry fractionation (often by air classification) or wet fractionation separates protein from starch, fats, and fibre. 

The end result is a flour, concentrate or isolate, which differs by protein concentration. Flour has the lowest concentration with around 65% protein or less. The concentrate usually contains 65% protein, whereas isolate, on the other end of the scale, packs a mighty 90% or so.  

At this stage, we have the raw plant-based protein materials. They are ready to be incorporated into plant-based alternatives such as meat or dairy. We’ll cover exactly how this works in future posts because the processes used for plant-based also apply to other categories of alternative proteins, such as fermentation-based.

For now, here’s a simple explanation of what can happen next.

Protein alternatives are mixed with other ingredients such as colourings (i.e. beetroot), flavourings (i.e. spices), and oils (i.e. coconut). These extras are often essential and contribute to meaty characteristics, like juiciness and tenderness.

The mixture will then be mixed and layered further using several possible processes. At the industrial scale, one of the most widely used is High Moisture or Low MoistureExtrusion (HME/ LME). Extrusion applies varying amounts of heat and pressure to transform alt protein mixtures into a layered fibrous structure that resembles the appearance and texture of meat. This textured protein can then be prepared further, for example by mixing with additional ingredients, dicing, cooking, marinating, freezing, etc. The Vegetarian Butcher uses these processes to create their vast range of plant-based meat substitutes.

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What are the benefits of plant-based protein production?

Scalability. Plant-based was really the first generation of modern-day protein alternatives. Companies have been developing and working on refining their processes for longer. As this category is more advanced than all the alternative protein sources available today, plant-based proteins are closest to making breakthroughs in product scale and affordability. 

In Japan one of the biggest players, DAIZ, is building a production facility capable of producing 3,300 tonnes of “miracle meat” per year. In 2023 they aim to begin building a second plant that is capable of more than quadrupling this output.

Though production is still prohibitively expensive for most startups, plant protein is becoming more accessible. Large companies, like Thai Union, one of Asia’s biggest fresh and alternative seafood processors, are offering co-manufacturing to startups who don't have enough resources for production. 

Plant-based proteins are still waiting to bloom. The industry has so far relied on tried and tested ingredients such as soy, pea, and oat. However, it is estimated that millions of potential plant-based proteins are left for the category to explore. Konjac, for example.

What’s more, some companies are working on novel ingredients to make alternative protein foods more like the animal-based products they seek to mimic.

There's a growing number of companies developing novel ingredients to manipulate alternative protein foods to mimic the essential features of animal-based foods. Examples here include the production of traditional animal-based proteins like fats or casein (a dairy protein) being created from both plants (via molecular farming) or microbes (via precision fermentation).

For example, Nobell Foods has engineered soy plants to produce casein using molecular farming.

What are the challenges of plant-based protein production?

Despite leaps and bounds made in the last 10 years, replicating authentic taste and texture remains a key challenge. Plant proteins often have “beany” or bitter-off flavours which take a lot of extra processing to remove or mask, if even possible. They also generally need additional ingredients and processing to exhibit meat-like texture and appearance, such as using binders or colouring agents. 

The food industry aims to create products with fewer ingredients and less processing while improving taste and texture. “Bitter-blocking” ingredients, like MycoTechnology’s ClearTaste, and colour indicators that replicate the way animal products change colour when cooked are priorities for developing more authentic plant-based proteins. 

Improving production efficiency is another key aspect. Plant-based protein production is currently expensive. Only established, well-funded companies can afford to produce at scale. We need to make the production of plant-based proteins more accessible to startups so we can increase innovation in this category. 

How are fermentation-based proteins made?

As ancient a technology as fermentation is, it increasingly sounds more and more futuristic. Let’s try to demystify this surprisingly simple process.

Fermentation in the food industry generally means using microbes to create a protein or enzyme which changes the taste, texture, appearance, or shelf-life of a food.  

Fermentation is a millennia-old process to assist in preserving, manipulating, or enhancing food tastes and textures. The act of using microbes like lactic acid bacteria in order to create cheese and yoghurts can also both improve the safety of the food (via outcompeting harmful microbes and changing the food's pH) along with enhancing nutritional value of the food.

Microbes are used in three primary fermentation processes.

Biomass Fermentation

You can reproduce the biomass of microbes to create an edible protein. 

Biomass fermentation takes a microorganism, like food-grade bacteria or fungal mycelia (root), and uses its rapid growth to create large amounts of protein-rich food. The microorganisms that multiply during fermentation are themselves the food. 

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Most biomass fermentation uses submerged fermentation, where microbial cells are grown in a liquid nutrient medium. Meati Foods uses submerged fermentation to create their authentic whole-cut meat alternatives. Nature’s Fynd, who we introduced last week, grows biomass on top of a liquid surface, using liquid air interface fermentation technology. Fermentation requires the use of feedstocks, such as different types of sugars, that microbes feed on in order to grow.

A key piece of equipment used in these processes is a fermenter. These are tanks designed to support fermentation. They are filled with a medium or feedstock (a liquid enriched with nutrients to promote microbial growth) in which fermentation takes place, and microbial biomass multiplies. The good news is there are existing facilities used for fermentation in other industries, such as those used for bioethanol production, which can also be adapted to ferment biomass for human consumption.

Following the fermentation process, the microbial biomass may be processed, for example, through drying in the case of submerged fermentation. The raw biomass can then be processed in similar ways to plant-based proteins.

Traditional Fermentation

In traditional fermentation, you can use that microbe and apply it to a food. The microbe produces enzymes that change the texture and flavor of the food, like the yeast acting on soybeans in tempeh production.

Traditional fermentation takes raw materials and changes their chemical composition by adding a culture like yeast. These cultures transform the raw materials biochemically (e.g, by developing nutrients) and organoleptically (e.g., taste, texture, etc.).

Products including Angie’s Tempeh make use of this process. Soybeans are processed through several stages of boiling and drying, then they are inoculated with a culture, the edible mold Rhizopus oligosporus. The mixture is wrapped, creating anaerobic conditions where the fermentation occurs. The end product is a firm block of tempeh.

What are the benefits of fermentation-based protein production?

It is so efficient. Biomass fermentation can potentially produce the same amount of protein as traditional protein production in hours, rather than weeks or months. Not only that, but it is more affordable and resource-efficient than growing animals to produce them. Microbes for fermentation reproduce, so you do not have to invest heavily in raising livestock or growing fields of soybeans.

It opens new doors for production. The space and resources needed to set up fermentation are orders of magnitude lower than plant-based and animal protein production. Raw materials are, for the most part, produced in the same place that the fermentation takes place. This creates more freedom over the supply chain as production can be set up almost anywhere.

It can enhance food nutritional profiles. Fermentation unlocks the nutritional power of foods by enhancing essential amino acid profiles, vitamins, and soon minerals. Some compounds which are created during this process can extend food shelf life. Biomass fermentation can produce large volumes of nutritionally rich proteins such as mycoprotein. Fermentation can also be used to improve the taste, texture and nutritional properties of plant-based proteins like MycoTechnology’s ingredients for plant-based foods.

What are the challenges of producing fermented proteins?

Identifying new strains for fermentation: With only a certain array of microbes legally allowed to be used in most countries, the F&B industry has relied on the same old reliable strains for decades. With advances in identification screening and genetic modification technologies, there is great potential to find new strains or enhance current ones to become super-efficient. However, comprehensive strain discovery and development programs require enormous data sets and specimen libraries. Collaboration across regulatory and industry players is key here to do this economically.

New types of feedstock for fermentation. Feedstocks fuel fermentation’s fire with essential nutrients that microbes feed on. Yet most fermentation relies on fairly standardized fuel: sugar-based feedstocks. There’s room for optimization with novel feedstocks like valorized waste streams. European startups Mush Labs and MOA Foodtech are two such companies using would-be-waste to feed their fermentation and make proteins.

We’ll cover the third type of fermentation used for alternative protein production, precision fermentation (PF), as well as cultivated proteins in future posts. Stay tuned for more!

That’s all folks

We hope you enjoyed exploring how alternative proteins are made with us. We’d like to say a huge thank you to Dr. Maya Benami for interviewing with us and guiding us through our alternative protein journey. Dr. Benami will return for future posts too, so stay tuned for further fascinating insights.

See you next Tuesday for the next chapter of our Alt Protein Primer.

In the meantime, let us know how we’re doing. Do you have burning questions that we haven’t answered? Or is our protein primer enough to keep you full and satisfied? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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