The bright side of fungi

The bright side of fungi

We recently wrote about the damage that fungi is doing to some of the world’s top crops – with fungal disease thriving and spreading in increasingly warm and humid environments. 

But like many problems, there’s a bright side if you look hard enough: and the rise of favourable environments for fungi to grow also creates new potential for food innovation. Because there are many species of fungus that we can eat – and some of them are highly nutrient-dense and good for human health. 

Fungi offer a sustainable and nutritious source of calories 

More and more markets around the world are focused on sustainable and healthy food – because that’s what consumers want. Companies are under pressure to ditch the additives and develop food products that have a long shelf-life but also tick the boxes for natural, clean eating. 

And many types of fungus can be used as a sustainable, natural food source. They don’t need large amounts of resources (like water or solar energy) in order to deliver a strong nutritional output, and they can be grown in a wide variety of substrates – even in waste products. 

Fungi are often rich in iron, zinc, and vitamin B-12 – and studies suggest that filamentous fungi could provide very high quality protein for human consumption with a minimal environmental footprint. 

There are more than 2,000 species of mushroom that grow naturally, with only around 25 of them widely accepted as food – and just a few varieties commercially cultivated on a large scale. 

But food tech innovators are digging deeper into the potential of mushrooms as a sustainable protein source

We’ve all eaten a mushroom. But have you ever eaten a mushroom root network? 

Fungi have complex networks of roots called mycelia. These networks break down organic matter in soil or substrate, and convert it into nutrients that the fungi can absorb. Mycelia have around 500 times more digestive enzymes than humans – and this diverse microbiota means that mycelia can thrive in a wide variety of environments, many of which would be inhospitable to most crops. Mycelia are also highly adaptable – they’re in constant two-way communication with their environment, and they adapt rapidly to changes in nutrient availability. 

One company, MycoTechnology Inc., recently appeared in this feature by Food Dive – because it’s developing a mycelial fermentation platform that allows fungi growers to continuously adjust growing conditions in order to optimise fermentation for the development of premium food ingredients. 

Essentially, MycoTechnology’s fermentation tank replicates the natural intelligence and agility of mycelia in order to produce better ingredients that are both more nutritious and more delicious. And at present, the company offers two key product lines that are derived from this process of fermentation via mycelia: 

  • Clear IQ natural flavour. It’s a group of flavour modifiers that can improve the taste of ingredients, reducing undesirable tastes (like bitterness) and increasing desirable tastes (like citrus or umami).
  • Ferment IQ protein. This is a line of protein blends with a pea or pea and rice base, all of which are fermented by the mycelia of shiitake mushrooms. The protein has a neutral taste and is highly nutrient dense, and can be used to make meat and dairy alternatives more appealing in texture, and healthier in content. 

Caroline Schwarzman (Director of Commercialisation and Growth Strategy at MycoTechnology Inc.) told Food Dive, 

“People are leaning into products that have positive connotations and that feel healthy. MycoTechnology’s fungi-derived ingredients unlock value for the market, satisfying consumer demand for healthier, better-tasting foods from nature.” 

And other companies are also leaning into the potential of fungi-based protein, innovating to develop sustainable solutions for food security – while also giving consumers exciting, tasty new food choices.

They include…

  • Mushlabs: A biotech startup that secured USD $10 million in Series A funding in 2020, with liquid mushroom fermentation tech that enables the cultivation of mycelia to create alternative proteins.
  • Meatifoods: A meat alternative innovator with a steak made from mycelium, which is very minimally processed and can be grilled and seared to taste very much like a meat steak. In 2022 the startup raised $50 million in a Series B funding round, and one of the company’s advisors is celebrity chef and food activist Tom Colicchio.
  • Libre Foods. Based in Barcelona, this startup aims to liberate the food system from its reliance on animal products by creating healthy, delicious and sustainable foods – also grown from fungal mycelium. 

So yes: fungi are causing problems, with infections spreading rapidly around the world and damaging critical crops. But fungi are also rich in potential for future food security; offering resilient and adaptable protein sources to communities in any region. 

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