When did food become so complicated? There are dozens of diet fads out there with names that seem like they were based on vanished civilizations from the time of Conan – Keto, Dukan, Optavia. Science seems to flip-flop between glorifying and demonizing everything from coffee to fat. In some circles, meat has become public enemy No. 1 due to environmental concerns, mainly focused on methane, but raising livestock is also water intensive and requires a lot of work to manage. Others are turning away from animal-based protein sources for health or ethical reasons. At the same time, demand for animal-based protein is projected to increase as the population nears 10 billion people by mid-century, even as millions already face food insecurity, particularly across Africa. In other words, there’s no lack of reasons for developing alternative protein sources to meat.
Meat consumption is on the rise around the world. Credit: FAO
Personally, we’re not too keen on spending the rest of our lives subsisting of liquid meal replacements like soylents as our primary source of protein and nutrients. Fortunately, there’s a whole new generation of biotech companies brewing, baking and building alternative protein sources that might someday match meat and dairy in both texture and taste. We’ve covered some of these companies that are working on so-called fake food or clean meat before. In this article, we list down some of the different types of alternative proteins available and some of the companies working in each space. Let’s start with some of the really weird ones.
Alternative Protein from Microbes
For the light eaters out there, a Chicago-based company thinks growing microbes as an alternative protein source is just crazy enough to work. Founded in 2013 and based on research out of Montana State University, Sustainable Bioproducts took in $33 million last month from some heavy hitters. Investors include food giants like ADM (ADM) and Danone (BN:FP), as well as Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a $1 billion save-the-environment fund with a board full of billionaires like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos. Sustainable Bioproducts is attempting to grow microbes at scale based on research in Yellowstone National Park on the extremophile microorganisms that live in the hot springs. The idea is that the organisms would feed on starches or some other cheap and easily renewable food stock and multiply like rabbits. Co-founder and CEO Thomas Jonas told Bloomberg the end product, which contains all nine essential amino acids, could be meat-like or dairy-like, sweet or savory. Sounds delicious.
Alternative Protein from Methane
It turns out that methane can be environmentally useful, after all. We’ve come across several startups converting methane to protein. The concept is not unlike that proposed by Sustainable Bioproducts, but in this case, the bacteria live on a steady diet of methane that they are able to metabolize, converting some of that energy into more complex molecules that we might eventually call food.
Founded in 2011, Silicon Valley’s Calysta Energy has raised $88 million for its methane-based alternative protein source. One of its biggest investors is Cargill, which also collaborated with Calysta on building a factory a couple of years back. So far, the end product is only used as feed, mainly in the aquaculture industry. The company calls its methane-munching microbe concoction FeedKind, which contains 71% crude proteins. The company says an independent party evaluated FeedKind and found that it uses between 77% and 98% less water than alternative ingredients such as soy and wheat proteins. It also claimed that Atlantic salmon get fatter faster on FeedKind versus fishmeal.
Credit: Calysta Energy
Other competitors include London-based Unibio and its Uniprotein, and String Bio out of India, which hopes to leverage waste greenhouse gases and eventually produce an alternative protein source for humans out of methane-fed microbes.
Brewing Alternative Proteins from Engineered Microbes
So far, all of these techniques converting microbes to “meat” is based on fermentation technology, not unlike how you brew great-tasting beer. Instead of the yeast turning sugar into alcohol in the case of beer, these microorganisms are converting sugars or even methane into proteins.
That’s also the case with Boston-based Motif Ingredients, a spinout from Ginkgo Bioworks that raised $90 million last month and also counts Breakthrough Energy Ventures as an investor. The difference is that Motif, with access to Ginkgo’s biological foundries, will make all sorts of proteins using engineered microbes. Just got back from a crossing of the Sahara Desert? How about some camel milk? Motif notes that it could brew up functional products, like platypus milk, which recent research shows contains a protein that could potentially kill superbugs.
Alternative Protein from Fungi
Moving slightly up the food web brings us to mushrooms. Technically, we’re generally talking about mycelium, which is the thread-like “roots” of mushrooms or other fungi. We recently wrote about how a company called MycoTechnology is using this product to make a sugar substitute, as well as an alternative protein source from shiitake mycelium. The protein product from mycelium is called mycoprotein, which is the main ingredient in the well-known line of Quorn vegetarian products. Basically, you’re eating mold in the shape of a chicken nugget, which could be a problem for those with mold allergies or taste buds.
A Glasgow-based startup founded in 2015, 3fbio has raised about $8.8 million for its zero-waste fermented mycoprotein called Abunda, which it says cuts the cost of producing mycoprotein in half. The fermentation process in this case uses low-cost, sustainable feed grain that in a closed-loop system produces mycoprotein, animal feed, and fuel. In addition, 3fbio says that the process only requires a half-kilogram of input for every kilogram of mycoprotein produced, compared to 25 kilograms for cows. It also uses up to 95% less water and land relative to beef.
Nothing is wasted by 3fbio in the production of mycoprotein. Credit: 3fbio
Founded in 2017, San Francisco-based Terramino (also known as Prime Roots) also uses fungi for food. It has raised $4.5 million in Seed money from the usual early-stage synbio investors like IndieBio and SOSV. The company has targeted a fungus known as koji that is normally used in Japan to make everything from sake to soy sauce. The fungus is brewed in a liquid and fed nutrients before being processed with other ingredients, including algae, which reportedly gives its salmon burger the right amount of seafood authenticity.
Alternative Protein from Microalgae
Paris-based Algama also sees a future for algae as an alternative protein source. Founded in 2014, the startup has raised about $4 million to develop proteins and other ingredients around microscopic-sized microalgae. The company has released a couple of products, including a vegan mayonnaise that uses microalgae instead of eggs to cut the fat and calories. (It’s probably good with tuna fish.)
You might recall that San Francisco-based Hampton Creek, which changed its name to “Just” because of a string of bad PR, started out in the mayo biz in 2011. It has since raised about $220 million and is reportedly on the prowl for another $200 million. The takeaway: People love their mayo.
Alternative Protein from Insects
We hit on the theme of edible bugs last year with a list of eight startups. Here’s a ninth that specializes in insect protein for animals: Founded in 2015, Paris-based nextProtein has raised about $1.5 million. The insect of choice in this case is the black soldier fly, which is known to have a voracious appetite for food scraps and agricultural waste. The flies are allowed to feed on bio-waste and then reproduce. The larvae are then processed into three different products – a protein powder, an oil, and a fertilizer.
Update 05/20/20: NextProtein has raised $11 million in Series A funding. This brings the company’s total funding to $12.6 million to date.
Alternative Protein from Plants
Plant-based proteins are obviously the most mainstream of the alternative protein sources. You don’t have to look any further than the impending IPO from Beyond Meat to see that plant-based protein is big business. The bright minds at data research firm CB Insights value the plant protein market at $11 billion. One of the hottest alternative protein sources is probably peas.
Founded way back in 1985, Puris Proteins out of Minneapolis was doing pea plant protein way before it became hip to put a shot of pea milk in your latte. Cargill invested $37.5 million in the company last year. The pea protein can be used in everything from non-dairy milk to cookies, in case your Santa is vegan. Puris uses the entire plant, which its founder developed over years of selective breeding so that it could grow in all types of climate. In other words, it’s non-GMO and organic whenever possible.
Alternative Protein from Stem Cells
Finally, the ultimate alternative protein to meat may just be … meat grown in a lab. A number of companies have emerged in recent years that are attempting to culture cells from cows, chickens, and fish, into something both edible and affordable. We’ve covered a number of these startups already – and companies like Just are pivoting into the market – but there are always new players to cover. Like Meatable out of the Netherlands, which was founded just last year with $3.5 million. While we already added Meatable to our lab-grown startup list, that was before we had details about its technology. And it could be a game-changer: Meatable proposes to grow meat in the lab without using animal cells. Instead, it will employ pluripotent stem cells, which can turn into any type of cell, according to an article in Business Insider. Vegetarian can have their steak and eat it, too.
Methane, microbes, microalgae – who knew there were so many alternative protein sources? Some are obviously highly experimental and niche, while others like those peddling plant-based burgers and milks are rapidly maturing. Rather than fight the inevitable, big Ag and food companies like Cargill are hedging their bets with some serious investments and acquisitions. The upcoming Beyond Meat IPO should offer a barometer into the public’s appetite for these alt meat companies.
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