Alternative proteins are booming. Supermarket fridge shelves are crammed with plant-based burgers, bacon, sausage, and their comrades with creative names: chik’ns, mylks and sheezes. In the UK alone, the sale of meat substitutes has increased from £ 582million ($ 800million) in 2014 to £ 816 million ($ 1.1 billion) in 2019. And where customers go, venture capital follows. In 2020, alternative protein companies raised £ 2.2bn ($ 3.1bn) in funding. Almost £ 600million ($ 700million) went to Impossible Foods, the company that, along with Beyond Meat, redefined what people expected from veggie burgers with the release of their oozing, beefy plant-based burgers .
Fancy burgers may be the current stars of the alternative protein scene, but a much more modest food is brewing for its moment in the limelight. The mushroom rebirth is here – and a handful of startups are poised to take this much misunderstood food to a whole new level.
Turning mushrooms into protein is nothing new. In the mid-1960s, a British film mogul turned flour baron named J. Arthur Rank was looking for a way to turn all his excess wheat into protein for human consumption. Rank scientists analyzed over 3,000 different mushrooms, but on April 1, 1968, they found what they were looking for in a compost heap in a village just south of High Wycombe in England. The fungus, later identified as * Fusarium Venenatum *, met Rank’s requirements perfectly. It grew easily in fermenters, turning into a relatively tasteless chunk of protein-rich foods called mycoproteins. In 1985, this mycoprotein was approved for sale, but the first products – a trio of savory pies – carefully avoided mentioning mushrooms on their packaging. Instead, this mycoprotein was referred to by its brand name: Quorn. (A quick word on definitions: Fungi are a large group that includes fungi, yeasts, and molds. Fungi are the fleshy, above-ground body of a fungus, but mycoproteins are usually made up of threads resembling to roots that live underground.)
Quorn was kind of a slow burner. “It was really a vegetarian staple,” says Tim Finnigan, who joined Marlow Foods, the company that makes Quorn, in 1988. new proteins with low environmental impact, ”he says. The company only made a profit in 1998, and over the decades the brand has rebounded between large food conglomerates and private equity groups. Its current owner is Monde Nissin Corporation, a Philippines-based company that makes noodles, crackers, and a jelly-based drink marketed as a way to protect against stress.
Despite his somewhat unloved status, Quorn has maintained a near monopoly on the production of mycoproteins. For 20 years, Marlow Foods held patents on the fermentation process used to produce Quorn, and although those patents have now expired, the company has been a big step ahead in the production of mycoproteins on an industrial scale. Quorn’s mycoprotein is brewed in 150,000 liter fermenters that transport the fungi in a constant loop as they feed on a wheat-based sugar solution. After about four days, the mushrooms are ready to harvest at a rate of two tonnes per hour for the next 30 days. The mycoprotein is then frozen, bringing its long strands together, giving Quorn its characteristic chicken texture. From there, the mycoprotein is flavored and processed into any of a long list of meat analogues: mince, fish fingers, kebabs, turkey dinosaurs and, well known,Gregg’s Vegan Sausage Rolls.
But a new wave of mycoprotein companies envision a future far beyond turkey dinosaurs. “Mycoproteins are increasingly becoming an ingredient,” says Ramkumar Nair, CEO of Swedish company Mycorena. “We aim to be an ingredient supplier for all food companies that want to make vegan products. Although Quorn has cornered the market for direct sales of mycoproteins to consumers, Nair’s plan is to provide the technology and ingredients to companies that want to create their own meatless meats but lack the expertise to create them in. internal. So far, Mycorena has partnered with Swedish brands to launch meatballs, sausages and chicken nuggets made with mycoproteins. The company is now busy developing bacon, cold cuts, jerky and protein balls.