Two researchers in the Netherlands have teamed up to develop sustainable, protein-rich ingredients for the alternative meat market.
Their ‘tasteless’ ingredient offering – which can be used as a foaming and binding agent, as well as an emulsifier – has already attracted significant attention from companies looking for a cheap, vegan alternative to egg white, FUMI co-founder Corjan van den Berg told FoodNavigator.
From microalgae to brewer’s spent yeast
FUMI Ingredients was born out of a collaboration between co-founders Edgar Suarez Garcia and Corjan van den Berg at Wageningen University.
During a four-year research project – in which Colombian-born Suarez Garcia was investigating the valorisation of protein in algae, overseen by supervisor van den Berg – the duo became frustrated that promising new biomass types such as microalgae were ‘not achieving their full potential’.
While studying the protein fraction within microalgae, the researchers were aware that a majority of microalgae companies were selling whole microalgae cells in pill or powder formats. “They just grow the algae and then dry it,” van den Berg explained. “And because of this, these microalgae powders don’t have any special food functionalities.”
Further, the team noted that algae were present in very small quantities in food matrixes – at somewhere between one and two percent. “There is a really limited use of microalgae right now [in food]. In our opinion, it will remain a niche product, unless it is refined,” van den Berg continued.
When the Bioprocess Engineering colleagues first hatched the idea for FUMI Ingredients – a name which abbreviates the terms ‘functional’ and ‘microorganisms’ – the aim was to refine microalgae in a ‘really mild way’, in order to protect its temperature- and pH-sensitive compounds.
“After four years of research, we discovered an optimal way to do this,” van den Berg told this publication. As an ingredient, they discovered microalgae could be used to make heat set gels and also an emulsifying and foaming agent.
The team also discovered the refined microalgae was ‘very comparable’ to the functionalities of egg white, which van den Berg said was a turning point for FUMI Ingredients.
“That was a big eye-opener for us. We saw that we could also perform this [process] on other microorganisms, so we started broadening our horizons…and looked at yeast.”
The start-up has trialled its methods on yeast left over from the beer brewing process to test its functionalities, with promising results. “It was amazing!” van den Berg told FoodNavigator. “We could make meringues out of proteins made from brewer’s spent yeast!”
A sustainable alternative to egg white
Sustainability was a key driver in creating FUMI Ingredients. Indeed, the co-founder described it as the ‘starting point’, since the decision to investigate microalgae as a protein ingredient for food was influenced by its ‘extremely low carbon footprint’, we were told.
Once the Colombian and Dutch duo became more interested in egg white substitutes, they observed an ‘extreme reduction in CO₂ emissions’ compared to its conventional counterpart.
For every kilogram of wet egg white produced, the equivalent of four kilograms of CO₂ is emitted, said van den Berg. “If you go for the dried egg whites that are used in industry, it’s a 10-fold increase per kilogram – 40kg CO₂/kg,” he added.
“If you compare this to our process, you can achieve over 95% reduction of CO₂ equivalent. It is an enormous step.”
Of course, by upcycling spent yeast from local beer makers, FUMI is also cutting brewery waste and reducing costs – for all involved. In the short-term, however, FUMI is looking at purchasing yeast – originally grown to make yeast extract – for its process.
“If you purchase yeast, compared to brewery waste, it represents a more significant cost. On the upside, buying dried yeast makes it easier to plan our processing. If you use spent brewer’s yeast, there can be slightly more variation in the input stream,” van den Berg explained.
“But once we scale up further and have all the logistics in place – including good collaborations with brewers – then it makes more sense to source directly from beer makers.
“As it stands, spent yeast is most commonly mixed with spent grain for animal feed. It is a low value resource, and we plan to upgrade that.”
FUMI’s target market also supports the sustainability agenda. The start-up is focused on supplying vegan binding ingredients for meat analogues, since a great number of players rely on egg whites for this purpose.
According to van den Berg, a number of companies have already shown keen interest in the egg white alternative. “If you look at the Dutch meat replacement market, we are in touch with more than half of all producers,” he revealed.
Functionality and taste
The company’s protein-rich products can also be used as a foaming agent – for example in meringues – as well as to stabilise emulsions, such as mayonnaise. FUMI is also targeting the bakery market with its ingredients’ foaming properties, to help manufacturers make ‘airy’, light bread products.
In terms of taste, unwashed spent brewer’s yeast protein will ‘taste a little bit like beer’, we were told, yet when the beer fermentation broth is removed ahead of the protein purification process, ‘it is completely tasteless’.
“When you use the product to replace egg whites, you typically use relatively small amounts. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to mask the flavour,” he added.
Van den Berg and Suarez Garcia’s vegan ingredients contain less protein than egg white, yet the founders are unconcerned. At around 65-70% protein, compared to egg white’s almost pure protein content, FUMI is focused on functionality and cost.
“We are not targeting 100% protein purity, our aim is to cut costs. We want to have a cheap egg white alternative on the market.
“Actually, we believe that if we go down the spent yeast route, we could perhaps even undercut egg white prices on an industrial scale.”
What’s next for FUMI?
If successful, the start-up claims it will become the first to bring a vegan and non-GMO egg white replacer, made from naturally occurring microorganisms, to market.
There are, of course, larger ingredients companies competing in similar markets. “Our biggest competitor, in my opinion, is Clara Foods,” said van den Berg, referencing the California-headquartered ingredients giant. “They produce egg whites in fermentation. We are doing the same [using yeast or microalgae] but in a non-GMO way.”
Another ingredients player, Avebe, is also competing in this space, van den Berg told us, citing the Dutch company’s Solanic potato protein.
FUMI Ingredients is confident its offerings will please an ever-growing customer base. “The amount of customers that have shown interest so far is already overwhelming. We believe that this market is huge, so we are looking for other markets to pursue and for other companies to start testing our ingredients,” said the co-founder.
In the meantime, the start-up has secured pre-seed funding to run a pilot this summer. Once customers have tested their prototypes and submitted feedback, van den Berg predicts FUMI to open an investor round.
“We want to use this money to start preparing for the factory, which we plan to build in two-and-a-half years. This will be a demonstration factory, but will be able to produce more than 200 tonnes of our egg white ingredient per year.”
In the long term, FUMI sees opportunity to license out its technology further afield. Since all breweries have local waste streams, “it makes sense to also start producing these ingredients from brewer’s spent yeast on-site”, said van den Berg.
“And then it could become a licensing model that can go worldwide.”