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2nd Mar 2024

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Mycelium food and EU regulation

  • Now a 'novel food'? A chanterelle mushroom on the forest floor (Photo: Timothy Dykes)
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In the 1960s, among fears of the so-called 'protein gap' — the idea that a growing global population would need an unsustainable amount of protein production to avoid malnutrition — researchers at British Petroleum made a remarkable discovery.

A byproduct of the refinery process, waxy n-paraffins, could be fed to a certain type of yeast, and produce single-cell proteins (SCP). The discovery was dubbed 'food from oil', unappetising as that may sound for us now, and was hailed by UNESCO as raising "the distinct possibility of microbe ranches of the near future — vast oil refineries — in which technicians would raise protein foods, as do farmers and cattlemen today."

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  • 'Novel foods' - insects on sale, outside a McDonalds (Photo: Barnaby Dorfman)

Alfred Champagnat, the researcher who pioneered the discovery, was later awarded the UNESCO Science Prize in 1976. The proteins produced from oil never caught on for human consumption, but plants producing animal feed supplements from SCPs were built across the globe — most notably in the USSR, with the CIA releasing a top secret report in 1977 on Soviet capabilities in producing SCP to supplement their lack of quality animal feed.

Around the same time, a more commonly-known product was created: Quorn. The meat-replacement product was developed in the UK by a joint venture between a chemical and food company in the late 1960s. After a 10-year evaluation process, its mycoprotein — a protein derived from fungi — was finally approved for human consumption in 1985.

Why is this relevant? Both yeasts and the strain of mould used to produce Quorn are part of the fungi family. And the application of the fungi family in food, and most importantly, protein production, has seen a surge of renewed interest over the past decade.

As part of the 'alt-protein' or 'alternative to proteins produced by livestock' industry, fungus takes a bit of a special place. While many alt-proteins rely on processing protein-rich plants such as soy to produce meat-like products, fungi are not plants — in fact, genetically they're more akin to animals than plants.

In nature, fungi act as mediators of waste. They break down organic matter, i.e. dead things, to grow, and in the process release back nutrients from the deceased matter into the soil.

Humans have used these metabolic capabilities for thousands of years, in the production of bread, cheese, soy sauce and alcohol, and have eaten the fruiting bodies ('mushrooms' for non-mycologists) for as far back as fossil records go.

But for about a decade, interest in mycelium — the 'roots' of the fungus that grow beneath the surface in vast networks — has surged. By growing the mycelium on a specific substrate, and closely managing the nutrient and oxygen supplies, the structural properties of the final product can be tweaked to resemble materials like leather, or food like meat.

Starting in 2017, a surge of new startups focusing on making use of fungi saw the light of day. In the food space, they mostly aimed at 'disrupting' the meat industry, by producing protein for human and animal consumption — this time not driven by the fears of a protein crunch, but by the potential of creating protein more efficiently than by raising livestock.

Interestingly, despite strict regulation of novel foods, Europe has been leading the pack when it comes to startups in the fungi industry. The continent counts double the number of startups using fungus compared with the United States.

European multinationals have taken notice as well. Brewers like Bitburger are actively working with startups that make use of side-streams of the brewing process as a substrate for mycelium, while Unilever has partnered with Scottish startup Enough to incorporate a mycoprotein into some of their alternative meat products.

Academic institutions researching mycelium for human consumption are also highly represented in Europe. Researchers at the Justus Liebig University in Gießen, Germany have been sifting through more than 500 species of fungi to determine their potential for producing food for human consumption.

Dr Martin Rühl, who heads up the working group on biochemical and molecular biology for food analysis at the university, has been working on this project for almost a decade.

"We're looking for the opportunity to upcycle side streams. Fungal organisms are capable of growing on different substrates, which cannot be used for by other organisms, which we otherwise have to dump, and by doing that, they will build up alternative proteins which then can be used by us as a food or as supplements," he tells EUobserver.

Some of the big advantages of using mycelium over, say, extracting protein from protein-rich plants like soy, are first that the proteins produced by fungi are more similar to proteins found in meat, making the more easily digestible, and second, that mycelium can be grown to resemble the structure of meat, rather than putting plant proteins through an extrusion process to add texture.

However, Rühl also says that producing mycelium protein at the scale necessary to be a major source of protein is still a bit of a problem.

First, there are the complexities of working with a living organism and being able to produce large quantities of mycelium at scale -– although some companies, like the US-based Meati Foods are investing in industrial-scale facilities, and Enough recently inaugurated their plant in the Netherlands. With scale, the price of mycelium-based protein should come down, although Rühl says it will be hard to beat cheap crops like soy.

Second, there are regulations. Fungi, while extremely abundant and having been consumed and used for millennia, are still a relatively under-researched area — which makes it harder for regulators to establish the safety of new products wanting to enter the market. Especially when it comes to mycelium.

Rühl explained that while the mushroom and the underlying mycelium both share the same genetic material, the EU has established that any foods created from the mycelium are to be classified as a novel food — even if the mushroom itself is considered safe. He gives the example of the oyster mushroom, which has been consumed for thousands of years, but when used in its mycelial form, is considered to be a 'novel food' that must go through the full regulatory process.

Both investors and startups have told EUobserver that these regulatory hurdles, imposed by the EU through the European Foods Safety Authority (EFSA) are both costly for fledgling companies, and slow down the innovation process.

Naturally, it's important to make sure that no harmful foods enter the EU market, but at the same time, Rühl says that variations in toxin production between the mushroom and mycelium are measured in nanograms.

The EFSA, in a response to EUobserver, said that the novel food category does not make this distinction, and applies the same vetting process for both the mushroom and mycelium — although of course a new product would have to be categorised as a novel food first, which is where the problem arises. In essence, a burger made from oyster mushrooms would not be considered a novel food, while a burger made from oyster mushroom mycelium would be.

Of course, there are a number of factors that should be closely considered for food safety reasons, even for products produced from mycelium of a known edible fungal species. The substrate on which the mycelium is grown, especially if it comes from a side or waste-stream, should be free from toxins (such as herbicides or pesticides) and heavy metals. The mycelium product has to be treated to reduce RNA content, and should not be contaminated with other microorganisms.

With the world population rapidly increasing, and the effects of climate change becoming more apparent, creating smooth regulatory pathways should be a top priority to keep food innovation at a pace that allows humans to remain inside the planetary environmental constraints.

And not only for human consumption; replacing animal feed proteins derived from e.g. soy with feed produced from alternative sources, has the added benefit of reducing the need for arable land, creating a net carbon sink.

Fungi can play an important role in this process. And thankfully, not creating food from oil this time around.

This article first appeared in EUobserver's magazine, Alt-Protein: Eating away climate change?, which you can now read in full online.
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