If you haven’t heard about the mycelium revolution in plant-based food, it won’t be long until that’s all you hear. With this powerful ingredient set to shake up the plant-based market, we’re investigating why it’s being dubbed a supernatural resource for innovation, and who’s using it.
Digging into the subsoil
While most people think of mushrooms in relation to fungi, mushrooms are merely the fruiting bodies produced by some fungi. They’re the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. Mycelium is the remarkable vegetative network of root-like structures that fungi form underground. They have dynamic and almost supernatural capabilities.
In the words of Merlin Sheldrake, a biologist specialising in fungal networks, and author of Entangled Life, “Mycelium describes the most common of fungal habits, better thought of not as a thing, but as a process – an exploratory, irregular tendency.”
These root-like structures appear as webbed, branching strands of cells called hyphae. Mycelium is used to communicate, reproduce, and function as an immune system. Incredibly, the immune response not only supports the health and vitality of the fungal organism, but also the health of the surrounding ecosystem (1).
Mycelial networks are extremely fine and strong. As they branch out, they consume organic matter and toxins, breaking them down into nourishment for other living organisms to thrive. This symbiotic relationship between the mycelium and the roots of other plants is known as mycorrhiza. It’s altruistic and efficient.
“Over 90% of plants depend on mycorrhizal fungi…which can link trees in shared networks sometimes referred to as the ‘Wood Wide Web’.”(2)
Fungi and their mycelium networks are among the most widely distributed organisms on Earth (3), it is the fungus mushrooms are made of, but it’s capable of, and is already doing, so much more.
The future is fungi
The fast-growing structure and dynamic roles that mycelium carries out have been harnessed for humanity in a number of industries. From innovation in medicine and food to clothing and construction, mycelium makes it possible.
In the plant-based food space, there are a number of players who have successfully used technology to direct the growth of mycelia branches, and create something new.
When you search for mycelium technology, Ecovative will be one of the first businesses to cross your path. Pioneers in this space, Ecovative’s MycoComposite™ and AirMycelium™ technology is licensed by brands making foam, food, leather, beauty and packaging (4). In their own words: “Ecovative has unlocked the power of mycelium to grow better, more sustainable materials.”
Israeli start-up, Mush Foods, has a unique method of combining fermentation with an AI algorithm to determine the exact growth media and conditions required for a specific volume of mycelium. This property process will drastically reduce the footprint of producing meat alternatives.
Mush Foods seeks to supply its ingredients to brands producing plant-based or hybrid meat products. CEO and founder Shalom Daniel says Mush Foods ingredients will help producers “improve the taste, texture, and nutritional value of plant-based or hybrid products.” (5)
And then there’s Novozymes – a large technology provider based in Denmark, who is currently focused on enzyme and microbial tech solutions. Last year, having invested $320 million into an advanced protein facility in Nebraska, Novozymes issued a creative collaboration call (6) to the mycoprotein industry. Inviting start-ups, researchers, corporations and NGOs to apply, Novozymes’ vision is to co-develop new ways to utilise mycelium, as the protein of the future.
Louise Byrick, executive vice president at Novozymes, said “Transforming our global food systems at scale will require radical new ways of working, bringing together the most cutting-edge scientific and business expertise from across industries and sectors.” (7)
Heading back to our roots
The magic of mycelium in plant-based food innovation is that its fibrous branches, paired with mushroom’s tantalising umami flavour, could be a revolution in the taste and texture of meat alternatives. Today, we are seeing mushroom mycelium used as the protein in some very in-demand areas: whole-cuts and vegan bacon.
Partnering with industry experts, Ecovative formed a food-focused business, Atlast Food Co, in 2020, which rebranded as Myforest Foods this year (8). Myforest Foods utilises mycelium to produce whole cut, meat-free products. The first retail product, MyBacon®, mimics the familiar meaty texture, umami intensity, and pan-crisping ability, without the animal. Not only is MyBacon® incredibly tasty, but it also contains all nine essential amino acids for a complete source of protein (9). Plus, it contains just six ingredients. Yep – mycelium, coconut oil, cane sugar, sea salt, natural flavourings and beetroot juice. (10) Beat that, bacon.
Lisa Feria, CEO of Stray Dog Capital (the brand behind Miyoko’s Creamery and Beyond Meat) notes that a focus on whole cut analogues is the next frontier in alternative proteins: “Mycelium, Atlast’s unique ingredient, is nutritious, versatile, and scalable — consumers should get ready to see a lot more mycelium in their stores and on their plates.” (11)
After a huge round of funding, Colorado-based food tech, Meati, is also harnessing mycelium to produce whole-cut meats. Their production borrows artisanal fermentation techniques from cheese, bread and beer, making mycelium in a matter of hours (12).
With the protein-rich and filamentous structure of mycelium, Meati’s mission of creating vegan alternatives with the appearance, texture and bite of whole cuts of meat can be realised. As they say, however, the proof is in the pudding. Well, after a successful secret restaurant launch in the US, where Meati’s ‘steak’ was trialled in a bánh mì sandwich (13), without customers noticing, we think vegan whole cuts are here to stay.
Meati has recently announced a working collaboration with renowned chef David Chang, who has a history of supporting the new and the unexpected in cooking (14). Chang explores ingenuity in the food industry set to fix our food system in his upcoming series The Next Thing You Eat.
Barcelona biotech, Libre Foods, seeks to liberate the food system for a more sustainable planet, starting with their vegan bacon. After a successful round of seed funding from the likes of Veg Capital and ProVeg International (15), they are close to market entry.
Despite the vegan bacon boom and success of mycelium overseas, the EU approval for commercial mycelium production is still in progress. Classed by the European Food Safety Authority as a ‘novel product’ (16) the current iterations of Libre meats are fungi-based but mycelium-absent.
This isn’t stopping the optimistic outlook from Founder and CEO Alan Iván Ramos, who believes that approval for the innovative process is around the corner: “We’re a rapidly increasing global population and will need tangible, innovative solutions to feed ourselves in the not-so-far future. Fungi can help do that.” (17)
Mycelium’s potential for innovation in the plant-based food arena is exciting. Brands across the globe are exploring how these incredible structures might be the best ingredient in the issues of climate change, intensively farmed meat, and the ethics of eating animal products.
Since the pandemic, there’s been a rise in consumers growing their own mushrooms at home (18), with time-lapse videos of pink oyster, shiitake, and even lion’s mane mushrooms sprouting on social media. Does this indicate a growing desire from consumers to understand and better utilise fungi? We think it does, which will make marketing the notion of mycelium-based meat much easier. We can’t wait to get started. Can you?
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- Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How fungi make our worlds, change our minds, and shape our futures. Penguin Random House, 2020. P4-7.