Mycelium protein maker The Better Meat Co. just received its fourth patent for Rhiza, its unique shelf-stable ingredient made from a fungus species known as Neurospora crassa.
Most mycelium protein analogs, CEO Paul Shapiro explained, are variations of Fusarium venenatum, which has been used by Quorn for decades. Neurospora crassa is another very common fungus with a long history of being part of the food system. In Indonesia, it’s used to ferment pressed soy, peanuts or coconuts into oncom, a tempeh-like staple food that is common in that part of the world. But it’s never been cultivated to be eaten as its own entity until now, Shapiro said.
“It's very meat-like in its texture, it grows rapidly and it accumulates a lot of protein,” he said.
With the new patents, Better Meat is staking its place in the ingredients space. They aren’t seeking to make their own branded products, but instead want to work with manufacturers interested in using mycelium in their products to substitute for meat, egg or dairy.
In general, Shapiro said, mycelium — which is the roots of fungi — is more natural and economical than any plant-based proteins. It’s also more nutritious and more easily versatile. But today, most manufacturers who want to substitute something for animal proteins are confined to wheat, peas or soy.
“What we're seeking to do is to create that fourth major ingredient that does an even better job of mimicking the meat experience,” he said.
Why Neurospora crassa?
The Better Meat was founded to make ingredients for the meat alternatives market. When they pivoted to mycelium, Shapiro said they looked at different fungus species to see what would work best.
What they wanted was something that was safe for human consumption, versatile, nutritious, shelf stable and easy to produce. Because of Neurospora crassa’s long history of use to make oncom, Shapiro said, they gave it a close look. After all, he said, if it has been used in food for hundreds of years and has cleared regulators in other countries, it likely has a shorter path to approval.
Neurospora crassa has other properties that Better Meat was looking for, Shapiro said. The fungus grows rapidly and has long, filamentous roots — good for simulating the texture of meat. And it can be dried, meaning it can be lightweight and shelf stable — qualities that can help an ingredient easily travel to various manufacturers to be incorporated into a variety of products, Shapiro said.
The speedy growth rate also makes Neurospora crassa an ingredient in ready supply for food production.
“From the moment that we inoculate our fermenter to the moment that we harvest our fermenter is less than a day,” Shapiro said.
Neurospora crassa is grown in water, and scientists at Better Meat say the texture looks like applesauce when it’s first grown. After Better Meat gets the water out of the mycelium, the long natural threads of the roots can be seen. When the mycelium is about the texture of children’s modeling clay, filaments can be seen as it’s pulled apart. Carefully shaping the mycelium and freezing it can make it a meat analog with fibers like meat. But Better Meat has also turned mycelium into bacon, chicken nuggets, lunch meat and a foie gras substitute. Shapiro said it’s also been used as a dairy and egg substitute in baking applications.
But the safety aspect is key. And the safety of Neurospora crassa has actually been studied for nearly a century. Not only is the fungus used to ferment traditional foods in Indonesia, but it’s also been cultivated for biological research for generations. Its genes have already been sequenced and quite a lot is known about it already.
Shapiro said the company has had self-affirmed generally recognized as safe status for its Rhiza protein for some time. The company is currently seeking FDA GRAS status for the ingredient, which it applied for about a month ago.
Better Meat-affiliated scientists also published a paper in the Food and Chemical Toxicology journal this month on Neurospora crassa’s safety as a meat alternative and enhancement ingredient. Shapiro said the long history all adds up to something that should readily be seen by both regulators and potential manufacturer customers as safe to use.
“We just have a different method of preparing it and growing it so that it can be used economically as a next generation meat replacer,” he said.
Better Meat is positioning itself to offer a new dimension to the alternative protein market. By putting everything on the table in terms of their ingredient, Shapiro said they are displaying the reasons why manufacturers searching for alternatives should pay attention to Rhiza protein.
In terms of ingredient composition and process, Shapiro said he believes mycelium is a clear winner over plant-based proteins. Pea protein ingredients, for example, take a lot of work and science to turn them into meat analogs, he said. Peas are grown in a field, then harvested and crushed into flour. Fibers and fats are separated from the pea flour, leaving a protein powder. But to become a meat analog, that powder often is extruded — a process that uses forces like pressure and heat to make the proteins into a soft, stretched, more meat-like form.
Neurospora crassa, on the other hand, is less complicated, Shapiro said.
“Simply through fermentation, we can create a whole-food, all-natural meat enhancer and meat replacer that is extremely beneficial for a variety of reasons, both economic and functional,” he said.
Hormel is working with Better Meat to develop products using Rhiza for eventual commercial production. Shapiro said they are working with other manufacturers who have not gone public yet with their plans. But, he said, the end goal is for Better Meat to be a leading producer of fermented alternatives to animal protein.
Shapiro said the company is on its way there. Its 13,000-square-foot demonstration-scale facility in California is able to produce thousands of pounds of Rhiza protein a month.
Better Meat is seeing a somewhat enviable side of the law of supply and demand, Shapiro said. There is plentiful demand for Rhiza protein. They just need to be able to make enough.
“And so we must build much larger fermentation assets in order to create a river of our Rhiza mycoprotein to flow through the food industry. And that's what we're working on now,” he said.