When consumers think of plant-based food, they think of items made from ingredients like soybeans, wheat, peas, coconut and rice.
Arbiom wants to add something else to those common ingredients: wood. The North Carolina-based company recently was able to use its SylPro ingredient, which is made from fermented and broken down wood, as a replacement for the extruded soy, pea and wheat proteins in prototypes of common plant-based substitutes. The company's CEO Marc Chevrel told Food Dive the proof-of-concept study showed no impact on texture or taste of the products.
Chevrel said this bodes well for the possibility of a truly sustainable and nutritious ingredient to be added to manufacturers' plant-based protein toolbox.
"We're taking wood, a known food plant, and putting it back into the food chain," Chevrel said. "And that's something that's never been done until now. That's also something that could completely change the equation between supply and demand for food at the global level, since wood ... is completely renewable and widely abandoned around the globe. You have basically an unlimited supply of it, with an interesting supply chain on top of that."
Arbiom got its start by breaking down wood through natural fermentation, akin to what mushrooms that grow on tree stumps do, to look for the chemical compounds that are produced and could be used elsewhere. Chevrel said they quickly decided that focusing on upstream products that could come from wood — specifically ingredients for animal feed and human food — would be a better focus because of the sustainability factor as well as the perpetual need for new ingredients.
SylPro is currently in the testing and development phase, Chevrel and Ricardo Ekmay, the company's vice president of nutrition, told Food Dive. If the tests continue successfully, they hope to seek FDA approval by the end of 2021.
While it seems a bit unconventional to create an ingredient from wood — especially for plant-based proteins, which are sometimes criticized for having woody tastes and textures — Chevrel said that manufacturers and formulators are excited about the possibilities. The ingredient is nothing like sawdust — which ends up in several items in the form of cellulose. In order for it to become SylPro, it spends some time in a fermenter. It comes out very different.
"Like other plant-based ingredients it does have a strong umami, which, when paired correctly and appropriately, I think certainly enhances the experience of consuming SylPro or a SylPro-based product," Ekmay told Food Dive. "I think we're certainly excited [for] what that brings."
So far, Ekmay and Chevrel said, there have been mostly positive reactions to the new ingredient from the larger food manufacturing community. The one criticism they have received is about sustainability. Some environmental activists fear SylPro will be made from trees that the company cuts down.
Chevrel and Ekmay were adamant that the wood for SylPro will come from scrap from manufacturing processes that would otherwise be discarded, or trees that are dead.
"I think one thing that's gonna remove that barrier [to adoption] is really understanding how SylPro is produced," Ekmay said. "The concept that we're valorizing waste products and streams that otherwise would not be utilized in any meaningful way. In particular, probably the main use of our input products would likely be burning. And we need to be cognizant of that this is a net game from the environmental standpoint."
There are many wood sources that could fill Arbiom's need to produce SylPro, though Ekmay and Chevrel said there needs to be a sort of consistency for them. The process is fairly adaptable to different kinds of wood. For now, Chevrel said, they are doing a lot of work with sawmills, which discard wood chips from the manufacturing process.
SylPro is also a highly nutritious ingredient, Ekmay and Chevrel said. It has a high protein content, and because of its sourcing from wood, has no exposure to antibiotics or other environmental contaminants animal-based ingredients may come in contact with. Despite what may be thought about an ingredient from wood, the company says SylPro is very easily digestible.
Arbiom has tried using SylPro in animal feed as well, and found it boosted livestock growth. The company is working to develop SylPro on both this track and on the human food track, Ekmay and Chevrel said.
As long as the R&D work on the ingredient continues as it has, Arbiom is confident that SylPro will be in products in coming years.
"I think we want to develop a product, and ultimately products, that meet the needs of the industry," Ekmay said. "I think we're always having that that type of feedback, and certainly we've advanced discussions along that pipeline. We've been pleased with the trajectory of SylPro within the human food space."