Single-ingredient meat analogue developed in ‘happy accident’: ‘We’re the first and only ones doing this’

The plant-based meat sector has struggled over the last year with reduced demand impacting manufacturers’ bottom lines​. Several factors are thought to be at play, ranging from price to taste and nutrition.

But another facet of meat alternative products is also thought to be plaguing the category. It has been suggested that ‘ultra-processing’ associations are hindering adoption​ of meat analogues, with further research suggesting most Europeans believe ultra-processed food (UPF) to be unhealthy and damaging to the environment​.

Since UPFs are usually identified by their long ingredients lists and inclusion of additives such as preservatives and emulsifiers, plant-based meat alternatives with limited ingredients and additives are considered something of a holy grail.  

Aware of these concerns, German start-up Nosh Bio wants to help meat-free manufacturers ‘clean up’ their labels. In a ‘happy accident’, the team noticed that its mycoprotein ingredient could be used all on its own: no additives, no extra processing, just one single-ingredient.

What is ‘ultra-processing’?

The most common definition of ultra-processed food (UPF) comes from the Nova classification system, which splits level of food production into four classifications: from raw and minimally processed foods; to processed culinary ingredients; processed foods; and ultra-processed foods. This last category is an ‘industrial creation’ by definition.

“I would like to say this is because we are such brains and so clever, but it really was an accident,” revealed co-founder and CEO Tim Fronzek. “It was then that we realised we had something super powerful.”

What makes Nosh Bio’s mycoprotein unique?

The secret to Nosh Bio’s single-ingredient offering is a fungi strain already known to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) – meaning it is not considered a novel food – but which isn’t currently being used for this purpose.

As to the name of the strain, Fronzek remained tight lipped, but confirmed it differs to those used by other mycoprotein players in the sector, ranging from Quorn to Mycorena and ENOUGH. When it enters the market, the company is predicting it will appear on ingredients lists as ‘fermented koji protein’, ‘fermented koji biomass’, or something similar.

What is koji?

Koji is a naturally occurring culture prevalent in Japan, where it is often fermented with cooked rice or soyabeans. It is also used in the making of alcoholic beverages such as sake.

Nosh Bio’s offering is special for a number of reasons, explained Fronzek. Not only is it free from bitter notes, but the fibre length of its mycoprotein is ‘significantly’ longer than that of its competitors. Why does this matter? Being longer means it ‘comes with a meat-like texture’, we were told. “It is naturally muscle-like and fibrous. We don’t need to run any extrusion tech, we don’t add any binders or stabilisers.”

The process comes across as remarkably simple: the protein is developed via a liquid state fermentation process, after which it is cleaned with fresh water, and ‘squeezed’ to drain any excess liquid. “You’re left with something that already looks like a piece of chicken or pork, which you can put in a pan and fry.

“You then have something that looks like meat, that chews like meat, and even has the slight umami taste of meat – although you can add a little salt and seasonings to it [if you like]. This is all mainly possible because of the longer mycoprotein fibres.”

The fermentation process itself is comparable to that used by others in the mycoprotein space. In a liquid state biomass fermentation process, the strain is inoculated in a water bath with carbon sources and other micronutrients. Nosh Bio then runs the fermentation process for between 48 and 72 hours, depending on the reactor volume, before filtering out the fungi from the liquid.

The next step for Nosh Bio is to investigate the use of side stream feedstocks from the food industry, such as starch, to further improve its sustainability profile. “The process itself is already quite sustainable, but this would reduce carbon emissions even further.”

Nosh Bio is using a mycoprotein strain that produces longer fibres, creating a ‘meat-like’ texture. Image credit: Nosh Bio

Can functionality help turn the tide on the meat analogue uptake?

The reason Nosh Bio’s mycoprotein can be used as a single ingredient comes down to its functionality. “It provides binding, thickening, texturizing and structuring power, which allows us to be the first – and one and only – company in the world to come up with single ingredient meat or fish analogues.

“There are no chemicals needed, no animal additives, no nothing. You can really have something that is comparable to meat in terms of nutritional values, but also in terms of price. It is quite cheap to produce.”

Aside from protein, the ingredient also includes dietary fibres and beta-glucans.

Looking beyond meat and fish analogues, the ingredient is ‘super versatile’. When dried, it can be ground into a powder to replace eggs in fresh foods or bakery applications, we were told. “You can replace chemical additives, binders and stabilisers in vegan ice cream and dairy applications.”

This is something mycoprotein companies have been struggling with to date, and some continue to use egg white as a binder in meat analogue products. For this reason, not all mycoprotein-based products can be labelled vegan.

As to whether single-ingredient meat or fish analogues have the potential to turn the tide on declining demand in the sector, Fronzek is ‘convinced’ they do. Looking at existing products on the market, comparably ‘they do not taste as good’, we were told. “They do not provide the same kind of comparable mouthfeel. Their nutritional values are not on par. You see a long ingredients list [which brings health concerns for consumers], and then realise you have to pay more for it.

“Even if average households would like to try meat analogues, they simply cannot afford it. And that is one of the powers of our ingredient: it comes at a competitive price.

“I’m convinced the moment we have animal-free products that taste like meat, feel like meat, have comparable nutritional values or healthier, and are cheaper than meat, the average household will change their diets.”

Unlocking the fermentation bottleneck with beer brewing capacity

Another hurdle facing those working in animal-free, fermentation-derived ingredients lies in production capacity​. Fermentation infrastructure can be costly and is not always fit for purpose. Is it understood that appetite for food-specific capacity far exceeds supply​.

In parallel to this dilemma, Nosh Bio has observed the beer brewing sector struggling. “A lot of breweries have shutdown in Germany, Europe and the US,” Fronzek told us, pointing specifically to small and medium-sized operations. Driving factors include slow post-pandemic recovery amid rising raw material costs.

With the help of breweries, Nosh Bio has seen an opportunity to run its own production facilities, but without the huge CapEx investments usually required to do so.

“We are running parallel processes,” explained the CEO. “On the one hand, we are collaborating with a contract manufacturing organisation, which required a tech transfer to establish our production process. At the moment, we are producing roughly five tonnes of product per week.

“In addition, we are partnering with breweries and offering them the opportunity to monetise infrastructure they may not be using [due to low demand].”

Nosh Bio has already retrofitted infrastructure in its pilot facility in Berlin, co-located at Berliner Berg. The start-up has also set up shop in a closed brewery close to Dresden, where it is leasing the latter’s entire fermentation capacity.

Nosh sushi landscape

Nosh Bio wants to get first products on shelves this year. Image credit: Nosh Bio

Nosh Bio aspires to have the ‘first’ single-ingredient meat analogue on retail shelves in Germany within the next three to six months, and is collaborating with big-name manufacturers to get there. “Our first client is one of the biggest meat producers in Europe,” Fronzek revealed.

The plan is to kick start commercialisation in the local market, but the company expects to increase production volume up to 6,000 tonnes per year within the next 18 months and simultaneously expand its reach.

“We want to scale in Europe, and ideally start exploring the US market this year, with aim of commercialising there next year.”