Meat-free proteins are a hot topic. In a 2019 McKinsey report, the consultancy published findings from an analysis of consumer online search queries: the most popular food and beverage product search was for vegan products, with a 16% CAGR.
In the same report, McKinsey suggested a growing number of CPGs and food makers are looking to win market share. But to do so, they will need to invest in the capabilities required to develop and manufacture the ‘most promising’ alternative protein products.
This is German start-up Saccha’s strategy. The biotech is backing brewers’ spent yeast fermentation as its technology of choice to develop alt protein for a variety of categories: from meat analogues to alt dairy, sports nutrition, and bakery.
Saccha, so-called for the species of yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) first used in its fermentation process, was founded in 2020 by Pitter and Michael Baunach, who also serves as the company’s Head of Process.
While well aware the market for alternative proteins is ‘sky rocketing’, Pitter suggested to delegates at Food Ingredients Europe (FiE) in Frankfurt that current plant-based products are not up to scratch.
“I, as a consumer, am still faced with products full of additives, like methylcellulose. The biotechnologist in me wonders why. And the reason is that the plant proteins used for production…are clearly inferior to animal proteins… in terms of functionality, conversion to muscle, and taste.”
For Saccha the solution does not lie in pure plant proteins, but rather in yeast. The start-up leverages brewers’ spent yeast – that is, the residual yeast by-product of the brewing industry – and ‘gently inactivates it’.
“In the beginning, we used primarily fermented brewers’ spent yeast, but there will also be our own yeast fermentation in organic quality,” Pitter told FoodNavigator.
From there, the start-up recovers ‘all the natural proteins’ out of the yeast via protein purification to create a powdered product made up of 80% protein, 20% texturizing fibres, and according to Pitter, ‘100% unique taste’.
Overcoming the taste challenge
Indeed, Saccha believes it has developed the highest quality, ‘tastiest’ vegan protein in the world.
Taste is a concern in plant-based innovation. Two of the most commonly used protein isolates, derived from soy and pea, have strong tastes food makers often attempt to mask with additional ingredients.
Admitting the product ‘once tasted awful’, Saccha overcame taste challenged by first identifying which substances were responsible for the unpleasant taste, Pitter told this publication. “Then, various process engineering steps were tested to remove the tastes. Today, we have an essentially tasteless protein concentrate.”
The CEO continued: “In our context, tastiest means flavourless, because it is always easier to add taste than to mask it.
“But we are also able to create a natural umami flavour if our customers want it.”
Another boon for food makers and consumers alike, suggested Pitter, is the product’s sustainability credentials. Being fermented in bioreactors, the protein can be produced locally all ‘without depleting our planet’.
“Compared to proteins from beef, we use 250 times less water and just a fraction of the land,” he told delegates. “And even compared to other plant proteins like pea, we use 60 times less land.”
Saccha’s protein is responsible for 13 times fewer CO2 emissions and uses half as much energy as pea protein production.
Pitter continued: These numbers clearly show that it is an ecological necessity to make this valuable resource available to the food industry.”
Saccha plans to sell its ingredients, in powder form, to the food and beverage industry. “We are also using our side streams to get a texturate and a seasoning from them,” the CEO added.
Concerning target markets, the start-up has divided potential customers into four segments: meat alternatives, dairy alternatives, sports nutrition, and baking & dough.
“Depending on the target group, different products are desired. For meat alternatives, all our three protein products, texturate and seasoning are desired as a readymade mixture.”
Saccha has likened its protein ingredient to that of egg protein – predominantly in terms of functionality. Egg protein, stressed Pitter, is the ‘gold standard’ in the industry.
“When our 100% soluble proteins are heated, they form an irreversible gel that holds all the components in a food together, just like egg whites.”
In so doing, the start-up expects its ingredient will help food makers shrink ingredients lists.
Saccha has already established partnerships with a number of German breweries that are supplying it with yeast, including Kaiser and Erdinger. The business also has partnerships with sugar producers who are supplying their organic, carbohydrate-rich side streams for the fermentation process.
Moving forward, the start-up wants to build its own demonstration plant, to be able to produce ‘several tonnes’ of protein per month, by the beginning of 2023.
By early 2025, Saccha plans to commission its first production facility with an annual capacity of more than 2,000 tonnes. “If we reach this goal, then for the first time, it will be possible to have a real impact on a larger scale.”