Alternative proteins are buming. Supermarket refrigerated shelves are cluttered with plant-based burgers, bacon, sausages and their companions creatively named: chik’n, mila and wheat. In the UK alone, sales of meat substitutes rose from £ 582 million ($ 800 million) in 2014 to £ 816 million ($ 1.1 billion) in 2019. And where customers go, venture capital follows. In 2020, alternative protein companies raised 2.2 billion pounds ($ 3.1 billion) in funding. Nearly £ 600 million ($ 700 million) of that went to Impossible Foods, which — along with Beyond Meat — redefined what people expect from vegetarian burgers by releasing their gooey, beef-based beef burgers.
Fantastic burgers could be the current stars of the alternative protein scene, but a much more modest food is preparing for its moment in the spotlight. The mushroom renaissance is here — and a bunch of startups are ready to take this much-misunderstood food to a whole new level.
Converting mushrooms into proteins is nothing new. In the mid-1960s, a British film mogul became a flour baron named J. Arthur Rank was looking for a way to turn all his excess wheat into protein for human consumption. Rank scientists analyzed more than 3,000 different fungi, but on April 1, 1968, they found what they were looking for in a compost pile in a village south of High Wycombe, England. The fungus – later identified as * Fusarium Venenatum * – matched Rank’s requirements perfectly. It grew easily in fermenters, turning into a relatively tasteless piece of high-protein food called mycoprotein. Until 1985, this mycoprotein was approved for sale, but the first products – a trio of savory pies – diligently avoided mentioning fungi on their packaging. Instead, this mycoprotein was called a brand: Quorn. (A word about definitions: fungi are a broad group that includes fungi, yeasts, and molds. Fungi are the fleshy aboveground body of a fungus, but mycoprotein is usually made from the root filaments that live underground.)
Quorn was a little slower. “This was key vegetarian food,” says Tim Finnigan, who joined Marlow Foods, a Quorn-based company, in 1988. “There was no real feeling for food safety issues and that we needed solutions – we needed healthy new proteins with a low environmental impact,” he says. The business did not make a profit until 1998, and for decades the brand jumped between large food conglomerates and private capital groups. Its current owner is Monde Nissin Corporation, a company based in the Philippines that produces noodles, crackers and jelly-based drinks that are sold as a way to protect against stress.
Despite his somewhat unpopular status, Quorn retained an almost monopoly on mycoprotein production. For 20 years, Marlow Foods has held patents regarding the fermentation process used to produce Quorn, and although those patents have now expired, the company has had a major start in mycoprotein production on an industrial scale. Quorn’s mycoprotein is cooked in 150,000-liter fermenters that transfer the mushrooms into permanent loops while feeding on a sugar solution made from wheat. After about four days, the mushrooms are ready to collect two tons every hour for the next 30 days. The mycoprotein is then frozen, which pushes its long strands, giving Quorn a characteristic chicken-like texture. From here, the mycoprotein is flavored and processed to turn into any of a long list of meat analogues: minced meat, fish fingers, kebabs, turkey dinosaurs and – known –Gregg’s vegan sausage.
But a new wave of mycoprotein companies predicts a future far beyond dinosaurs in Turkey. “Mycoprotein is becoming more and more an ingredient,” says Ramkumar Nair, CEO of Swedish company Mycorena. “Our goal is to be a supplier of ingredients to all food companies that want to produce vegan products.” Although Quorn has led the market to sell mycoproteins directly to consumers, Nair’s plan is to provide the technology and ingredients to companies that want to create their own meat-free meat but lack the expertise to create it. So far, Mycorena has collaborated with Swedish brands in the production of mycoprotein-based meatballs, sausages and chicken nuggets. The company is now busy developing bacon, cold cuts, jerky and protein balls.