Precision fermentation predicted to “disrupt the food system as we know it”
The US and Asia drive development as Europe lags under regulatory red tape
27 Mar 2023 --- A new category of food and ingredients is coming to the market produced by precision fermentation. The technology that has been around for decades to make insulin and vitamins is now gaining speed in new applications – for the sustainable production of traditionally animal-based foods.
“Precision fermentation enables nature-identical animal proteins, fats, flavors, enzymes, vitamins and more, made entirely without the animal. By programming the microbes to make milk proteins – in a way – we can brew dairy,” Irina Gerry, vice chair of the Precision Fermentation Alliance (PFA) and CMO of Change Foods, tells FoodIngredientsFirst.
It is now being leveraged in foods like alt-milk, cheese, yogurt, meat and eggs, but without the impact of farming animals at an industrial scale.
“It creates a tremendous benefit in terms of taste, texture and nutrition, which was not possible in the past.”
Moo-ving and shaking
Change Foods is one company exploring the production of milk casein with precision fermentation. It recently signed a pre-development agreement with KEZAD Group to build a commercial manufacturing facility in the United Arab Emirates. The factory is expected to produce enough animal-free casein milk proteins to replace that of 10,000 cows and will supply the Middle East and Asia.
“While our facility will be able to produce a variety of precision fermentation ingredients, we are initially focused on producing milk protein casein, which is essential in creating animal-free cheese that melts and stretches.”
Change Foods is prioritizing alt-cheese for two reasons. First, cheese is second only to red meat in greenhouse gas emissions of all foods and it is the number one food in freshwater withdrawals per kilo, explains Gerry.
“It is also notoriously difficult to replicate the taste, texture and nutrition of cow-based cheese with plant-based ingredients. Casein made via precision fermentation provides a key unlock to a high-growth category of animal-free cheese.”
In fact, precision fermentation is already used to produce non-animal rennet, a milk curdling enzyme used in 90% of cheesemaking worldwide.
In its current timeline, Change Foods plans to have a test market launch of animal-free cheese in 2024, with the commercial launch planned for 2025 or 2026.
Alliances are born
Change Foods is one of several companies that are stepping into the precision fermentation space, which is gaining significant traction and investment.
In August 2022, Fonterra and DSM launched a start-up collaboration to commercialize fermentation-derived proteins with dairy-like properties.
In the same month, ADM partnered with New Culture, an alt-dairy company targeting the commercialization of animal-free, melty and stretchy mozzarella.
“There are a lot of companies in the precision fermentation space. Especially in the last 24 months, many more embarked on the journey to disrupt the food system as we know it,” says Christian Poppe, spokesperson for Food Fermentation Europe (FFE) and global public affairs director with Formo.
“All companies work on developing their proprietary solutions and building up a certain IP portfolio to protect their innovations.”
He states that getting taste, texture, meltability, stretchability and creaminess right is a highly complex challenge.
“Depending on company maturity, some already have their final products ready for commercialization and others are very close,” he says.
“It also depends on the protein the companies are working on. Beta-lactoglobulin, globular proteins, caseins or others behave differently in different applications. That’s why molecular biology, bioprocessing and food science need to work in a synchronized manner to get to the desired results as fast as possible.”
Rising tide lifts all boats
The recent category acceleration has resulted in the formation of industry coalitions such as the PFA that Gerry represents and the FFE.
PFA comprises Change Foods, The EVERY Co, Helaina, Imagindairy, Motif FoodWorks, New Culture, Onego Bio, Perfect Day and Remilk.
The FFE is Europe-focused and consists of Better Dairy, Formo, Imagindairy, Onego Bio and Those Vegan Cowboys.
“The joining of forces of five of the leaders in our space is a really significant step and sign that our sector is growing and that there is a critical mass. We have all realized the need to come together to push forward the current food system and regulatory processes in order to facilitate market access for our products,” says Poppe.
“Our alliance can play a key role in raising awareness around the benefits of precision fermentation as an important enabler of sustainable food systems.”
Gerry agrees that collaboration across the industry will be beneficial to streamlining commercialization. She states that working together can help establish common nomenclature, industry standards for safety and sustainability reporting and promote consistent policy and regulation.
US and Asia drive growth
Today, products containing ingredients identical to dairy – but produced with microbes – are already reaching consumers in US and Asian markets.
Perfect Day’s milk proteins, for instance, feature in brands Brave Robot ice cream, Bored Cow milk and Modern Kitchen cream cheese in the US. In Singapore, they are available in cow-free milk under the Very Dairy brand.
“We see things move at a quicker pace in the US and Asia and this is one of the reasons for FFE to raise awareness. The EU risks missing out on this opportunity to be a leader in sustainable food innovation,” says Poppe.
“If the EU wants to achieve its climate ambitions, sustainable solutions like precision fermentation need to be enabled. In this sense, the upcoming sustainable food systems framework should set out a pathway for accelerating solutions like precision fermentation in the EU.”
Aside from regulatory approvals, other barriers to entry companies might face include access to top R&D talent, availability of capital and availability of critical infrastructure such as bioreactors and fermentation capacities.
FFE also foresees battling lobbying campaigns that will inevitably come from industrial agriculture and dairy players, as well as consumer awareness and adoption.
Lastly, getting to price parity swiftly and convincing retailers to free shelf space will be crucial, stresses Poppe.
A different kind of fermentation
Fermentation has been part of humanity’s food production since the neolithic age, explains Poppe. It plays a key role in making cheese, milk, yogurt, types of bread, beer and so many other foods.
Precision fermentation, on the other hand, is based on these millennia-old techniques and uses a refined form of brewing that takes and multiplies microorganisms – like little factories – to make ingredients and products instead of getting them from animals and plants.
“We genetically edit microbes to produce certain proteins when fermented. We then filter the fermentation broth (fermentate) to harvest the proteins, giving us a dry protein powder. The companies use this for creating B2C food products or supplying large food companies with a novel, innovative and sustainable ingredient.”
As the ingredients are identical to their animal-based counterparts, they also boast the same nutritional profile.
Replicating valuable health ingredients
As per its original application – in health ingredients – the technology is also advancing infant formula by producing human milk oligosaccharides and lactoferrin.
This month TurtleTree launched the world’s first precision fermentation-produced lactoferrin dubbed LF+, a high-value bioactive milk protein positioned for immunity, iron regulation and digestive health.
Lactoferrin and human milk oligosaccharides can add “significant nutritional improvements to baby formula,” says Gerry, which play a key role in early nutrition and are extremely expensive and resource intensive to produce by other means.
Blending traditions for a brighter future
Poppe envisions a new blend of the food system of the European Union, which combines tradition and technology.
“We see fermentation-enabled products as a key component of a resilient food system and future-proof agricultural sector, where fermentation-based food production collaborates with farmers and other global players of our food system.”
While some may see precision fermentation as a threat to agriculture, Poppe argues the contrary.
“We see fermentation-enabled foods as a further source of food security and complement to consumer choices. We also see farmers as key to providing the raw materials for fermentation – the feedstocks for the microorganisms to produce proteins.”
When it comes to food systems transformation, Gerry also notes that more efficient food production via precision fermentation would allow for land to be restored and rewilded to serve as carbon sinks.
By Missy Green
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