A “just another protein” mentality among consumers and the introduction of new, improved plant-based alternatives have caused traditional animal proteins to lose market share. According to Bloomberg Intelligence’s report, “Plant-Based Foods Poised for Explosive Growth,” the global market for plant-based products is expected to surpass US$162 billion by 2030, accounting for 7.7% of the global protein market. However, some alternatives have gained traction (plant-based dairy substitutes), while others have fallen a little short of expectations (Beyond Meat).
Longer term, a U.S. consulting firm called AT Kearney predicts that annual sales of plant-based alternative proteins could reach US$450 billion by 2040, accounting for up to 40% of all global “meat” consumption.
The use of lab-grown mycelium, a network of fine threadlike filaments cultivated from fungal tissues that produces the muscle-like structure to fungi-based meats, is a new(er) player on the block, promising more value and using fewer resources, while plant-based proteins have dominated headlines for several years. These flavorless mycelial products are altered in shape, color, and flavor to resemble real chicken, beef, pork, and seafood.
According to Allied Market Research, the market for fungal proteins will grow at a CAGR of 9.5% from 2021 to 2030, reaching US$3.86 billion.
Mycoprotein is a whole food source that is produced sustainably and is high in protein and fiber (Coelho et al., 2019). While lower than meats, mycoprotein products have a higher weight-percentage protein content than other typical plant or fungal sources of protein. A “fibrous chitin-glucan matrix” is formed when the fiber found in the cell walls of mycoprotein, which is composed of two-thirds -glucan and one-third chitin, is largely insoluble in the small intestine (Denny et al., 2003; Finnigan et al., 2019). According to standards set by the European Commission, mycoprotein is “high in fiber,” meaning it contains at least 6 g of fiber for every 100 g. (De Gregori et al., 2006; EC, 2008).
Mycoprotein performs well for vitamin B9 (folate), vitamin B12, calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, and zinc when compared to other protein-rich food sources. It has also been tested for choline, and the results show that it contains about 180 mg per 100 g, which compares favorably to some of the foods with some of the highest choline profiles, including cooked salmon (90 mg/100 g), pork (103 mg/100 g), dried soybeans (116 mg/100 g), bacon (125 mg/100 g), and wheat germ (152 mg/100 g) (Zeisel et al., 2003; Wiedeman et al., 2018).
Aren’t we just talking about mushrooms?
No and yes. According to fungi-food manufacturer Innomy, “Filamentous fungi (such as mushrooms) are formed by hyphae, small multicellular structures, which grow and branch giving rise to a complex network: the mycelium.”
Although mycelium is “related to mushrooms,” it is grown using techniques that do not result in the caps or other “fruiting bodies,” but rather fibrous slabs known as “bundles of branching fungi filaments.”
Two fermentation techniques are used on a large scale to produce fungi-based products: solid state (trays) and submerged (continuous, tanks – think beer).
Here is the Good Food Institute’s explanation of how the fermentation process produces protein-rich meat substitutes rather than trying to explain the science:
“Biomass fermentation efficiently produces large amounts of protein by taking advantage of the many microorganisms’ rapid growth and high protein content. With the cells intact or with only minor processing—for instance, the cells can be broken open to improve digestibility or enrich for an even higher protein content—the microbial biomass itself can be used as an ingredient.
This biomass is one of the primary ingredients in a blend or the main component of a food product.
Why are fungi-based meat alternatives so hot right now?
Investors find fungi-based foods to be very appealing from a nutrition and environmental standpoint due to a number of key characteristics.
Sustainable production: Compared to animal production, mycelium production uses just 1% the amount of energy, land, and water. (Referral: Meati)
Rapid development: Mycelium stocks can regenerate in days or weeks, depending on the cultivation method.
Low input costs: Mycelium can be fed abundant, affordable food sources like grains, sugars, and byproducts.
Mycelium is a nutrient-rich product because it has antioxidants, B vitamins, fiber, iron, and zinc.
Whole food, health appeal: Mycelium is categorized as a plant-based food by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but unlike plant-based meat substitutes, mycelium products have fewer ingredients and are, of course, cholesterol-free.
The ability to scale and enter the market at a competitive price point will be a challenge for mycelium protein producers, just like with the other novel protein substitutes. However, fungi-based meats have a lot of potential to seriously impede the growth of animal protein due to the promising outlook, increased interest on a global scale, new biotech, and an abundance of funding.