Alternative protein is Flourish. The shelves of supermarket refrigerators are full of plant-based burgers, bacon, sausages, and their creatively named partners: chik’ns, mylks, and sheezes.In the UK alone, sales of meat substitutes increased from 582 million pounds (800 million US dollars) in 2014 to 816 million pounds (1.1 billion US dollars) in 2019. The whereabouts of customers, venture capital will follow. In 2020, Alternative Proteins raised 2.2 billion pounds (3.1 billion US dollars) in funding. Nearly 600 million pounds (700 million US dollars) of this was donated to Impossible Foods, which, together with Beyond Meat, redefines people’s expectations for vegetarian burgers by releasing oozing, firm plant-based burgers.
Fancy burgers may be the current star in the alternative protein field, but a more humble food is preparing for its moment in the spotlight. The fungus’s revival is here-a large number of startups are preparing to take this misunderstood food to a whole new level.
The conversion of fungi into protein is not new. In the mid-1960s, a British film tycoon named J. Arthur Rank turned into a flour tycoon and was looking for a way to convert all his excess wheat into protein for human consumption. Scientists at Rank analyzed more than 3,000 different fungi, but on April 1, 1968, they found what they wanted in a compost pile in a village south of High Wycombe, England. This fungus-later identified as *Fusarium Venenatum*-fully meets Rank’s requirements. It grows easily in the fermentor and becomes a relatively tasteless high-protein food called mold protein. By 1985, this fungal protein was approved for sale, but the first products—three delicious pies—try to avoid mentioning fungi on the packaging. Instead, this fungal protein is called its brand name: Quorn. (Short note on definition: Fungi are a broad group, including mushrooms, yeasts, and molds. Mushrooms are fleshy bodies of fungi on the ground, but fungal protein is usually made up of root threads that live underground.)
Quorn is a slow burner. Tim Finnigan, who joined Marlow Foods, the company that makes Quorn, in 1988, said: “This is largely a core vegetarian diet.” A new protein with low environmental impact,” he said. The business did not become profitable until 1998. Over the years, the brand has vacillated between large food groups and private equity groups. Its current owner is Monde Nissin Corporation, a company headquartered in the Philippines that produces noodles, biscuits and a jelly drink for stress relief .
Despite its somewhat unpopular position, Quorn has maintained a near monopoly on the production of fungal protein. For 20 years, Marlow Foods has held patents for the fermentation process used to produce Quorn. Although these patents have now expired, the company has achieved a huge lead in the industrial-scale production of fungal protein. Quorn’s fungal protein is brewed in 150,000 liter fermenters that allow fungi to shuttle in a continuous cycle, while they feed on a sugar solution made from wheat. After about four days, the fungus can be harvested at a rate of two tons per hour for the next 30 days. The fungal protein is then frozen and the long chains are pushed together to give Quorn a typical chicken-like texture. From here, the fungal protein is seasoned and processed into any one of a long list of meat analogues: minced meat, fish fingers, kebabs, turkey dinosaurs, and—famous—Greg’s Vegan Sausage Roll.
But the new wave of fungal protein companies envisions a future far beyond turkey dinosaurs. “Fungal protein is increasingly becoming an ingredient,” said Ramkumar Nair, CEO of the Swedish company Mycorena. “Our goal is to become a raw material supplier for all food companies that want to produce vegan products.” Although Quorn monopolizes the market in direct-to-consumer fungal protein sales, Nair’s plan is to create its own non-profit organization. Meats Meats but companies that do not have the expertise to create them in-house provide technology and ingredients. So far, Mycorena has collaborated with Swedish brands to launch fungal protein-based meatballs, sausages and chicken nuggets. The company is now busy developing bacon, cold cuts, jerky and protein balls.