Exploring the World of Mycoproteins with Journalist Larissa Zimberoff

by Ryan Nebeker

Published: 12/15/21, Last updated: 12/15/21

Almost everyone has eaten mushrooms, maybe even as a meat substitute like a portobello mushroom burger. But now, mushrooms aren’t the only fungi making a run for the center of the plate: mycoproteins, made from (usually) invisible mycelium, are experiencing a surge in interest alongside other meat alternatives. Longtime vegetarians may be familiar with Quorn, the original vegan “chicken nugget” brand around since the 80s, but now mycoproteins are being explored as a meat-free alternative to products where other plant-based imitations have had trouble getting it right, from steaks to bacon to seafood.

“Technically Food” by Larissa Zimberoff

To get more insights on the possibilities of mycoprotein, we spoke to veteran food journalist Larissa Zimberoff, who covered mycoprotein in her book, Technically Food, which examined Silicon Valley’s attempts to reshape the food system. She also covers technology and the food system in her weekly newsletter. This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

What are mycoproteins and how are they different from the other fungi that we’re used to encountering, like mushrooms or the yeast that goes into bread?

Mycoprotein, or mycelium, which is the chapter name in my book, is the part of the fungus that grows under the ground. Sometimes I’ll call it an underground internet network for the forest species to talk to each other. The trees and the plants, everything can communicate through this network of fibers that are underground. And the mushroom is the fruiting body.

Mycoprotein comes from mycelium that eats stumps and trees that fall down, sort of the garbage cleaner of the forest. People figured out that this mycelium could be harnessed for food. We actually have an example of it, which is Quorn. Along the Thames in the sixties, they found a fungus in the soil that they figured out they could isolate and grow for its high protein content. Quorn was one of the first to actually commercialize it, and it’s funny that really nobody else went after that area until recently

What we’re seeing now are several brands — though not nearly as many startups like with cultured meat and plant-based meat–getting interested in growing mycelium because it doubles and triples very rapidly and doesn’t need a ton of inputs. It needs water and nutrients like carbohydrates, and it grows and it fills up a tank in a day. When it’s finished it also doesn’t need much work on the food formulation side to turn it into something tasty for humans.

I eat tempeh and tofu and paneer or halloumi, these very basic, three-to-five ingredient products where I’m like, “what’s next? What else is there that could be the next center of plate protein?” And I think mycelium really speaks to that.

So in the wild, mycelium are diffuse thread like networks, but then when they’re coming out of these tanks, are they like fibrous mats?

If you were camping in the woods, you couldn’t dig in the ground and then eat mycelium. But once it’s grown in a tank, it’s threadlike. It looks like flaked tuna, or it’s fibrous, like a mass of mozzarella cheese before it’s shaped into a ball.

It’s shaped and molded, and flavored with just a few other ingredients. The actual end product is mostly protein, but it does have carbohydrates and fiber. They’re probably going to add some kind of fat, not a lot, and some kind of flavoring. I’ve had a steak that also has gels and binders, which are some of the sort of disputed ingredients in plant-based burgers: methylcellulose, agar, or potato starch, just the things that help this stuff stick together. Animal protein has that all in there because it has collagen and it has gelatin, but fungi and plant-based protein do not.

Each company is doing it a little differently. There’s a brand called Meati in my book and it’s growing “chicken” and “steak”. I’m eating Meati jerky now. It’s all from mycelium that’s grown in big silver bioreactor tanks that sort of look like what you might see in a beer brewery. Atlast is making bacon on the East Coast. The startup is growing the mycelium in a long tray because they want it to grow in the shape of a whole cut of meat — like a pork shoulder. It grows layer by layer, and the food scientists have to keep convincing the mycelium to regrow and regrow. Eventually, Atlast has these hundred-foot-long slabs that they flavor and cut like bacon.

What are the inputs to these bio-reactors?

Mostly they need a sugar source. And sugar is cheap, but it’s about finding the cheapest source, because everyone talks about getting down to price parity with meat. The only way to do that is through the supply chain, so it’s all monocrop dependent. It’s not like we’re increasing our biodiversity. What goes into them will be thought of, I think, by the public, just like animal feed, in that most people don’t think about it.

Some are making a conscious effort to upcycle: The Better Meat Co. is talking to a French fry maker that has unneeded potato peels. And so they’ll have starch and carbohydrates, which is most of what it needs.

Have you run across any of the startups in this space that have gotten ahead of doing things like LCAs or other sustainability assessments?

I find LCAs to not be helpful yet, unless you’re Beyond or Impossible; they’ve scaled, they’re selling globally and they’ve got their supply chain humming along. They’re selling direct to consumer, fast food, retail, everywhere. What I don’t love looking into are LCAs that come from companies that aren’t scaling yet, because I just don’t see how it’s accurate before you have the entire supply chain built out.

And they’re also complicated, but it’s just become this de rigueur thing to have an LCA.  I’d rather have it be much more basic: tell me what inputs you’re using and where they’re all coming from.

In your book, you mentioned that one of these startups has a library of fungi that they’re interested in exploring. Are any of these products being made with mushrooms that we would already recognize?

MycoTechnology, which is outside of Denver, is using shiitake and oyster mushrooms. We know those, but they’re making them do different things: Mycotech is an example of a company that’s using mycelium, but not for us to eat. The mycelium are put into tanks with pea and rice protein and the mycelium eats the off-flavors from the pea and rice. Usually the flavors are from the exterior of peas and rice, so they’re using spores to eat what they don’t want, and then what they’re selling at the end is just this protein powder mix.

The final product is not the mycelium, which you won’t find referenced on the package. I had it in a Kashi bar once. I think anytime you see it say “rice and pea protein blend,” it’s coming from them; that’s my little detective work.

Is anyone investigating whether this has allergen concerns or other health impacts since it doesn’t show up in the label?

Peas are most likely allergenic to somebody, but there aren’t enough complaints to look into it. The FDA is reactive, not proactive, so they’re not going to do anything until enough people complain. Peas should be reviewed because they’re in so many different New Foods (my name for them), and legumes are problematic for people in a digestive way. But I don’t know anybody looking into mycelium.

Mushrooms are still a natural product in our diet, and the company will point to the fact that the mycelium is not part of the pea and rice protein, the end ingredient. They’ll say “it’s completely out because we’ve purified it out.”  So it’s the purification process that we mostly want to know about, not necessarily the initial mycelium.

The FoodPrint of Fake Meat

When you talk to the people producing Beyond and Impossible, they really hate the processing question. Is minimal processing a selling point for mycoproteins?

Absolutely. Chefs are interested in it because they see it like tofu or tempeh: it’s processed, but only lightly processed.  And post-processing, a chef could get his hands on mycelium without anything in it, right? They could just get just a single ingredient. It’s certainly something that attracts investors — clean label’s not going anywhere, people are still looking for a short, easy-to-read label, and that’s why so much attention has been put on

But it’s still such a small market that really cares about this stuff. I mean, we hope that that’s changing. We hope more people begin to care. I think with the pandemic, people are looking more closely at food and how one way to be healthier is by eating better.

Even though removing animals from the production process removes potential contamination sources, like E. coli or salmonella, with plant-based meats you still have this wet product that’s a fertile ground for bacteria. Are mycoproteins any different?

Just because there’s no animals doesn’t mean there’s no risk. I think it reduces the disease factor risk, but not the possibility for something to get in.  Everything can carry bacteria. Vertical farms, for example, say that they have nothing bad, but they still have recalls where they have to close everything down, throw everything away and clean everything. That’s going to happen anywhere. It can easily come from clothes, from shoes, from people, from the welding lines, the tank, the ingredients that they’re using. I’m not going to say all of our food is a hotbed of food safety issues, but that’s all potentially there. 

In your book, you talk about food additives like mycoprotein-derived “bitter blockers” and other products that are using mycelium in even more out-of-the-box ways. What are the ones that are the most out there and exciting?

I think the bitter blocker is probably the strangest thing tapping mycelium for. MycoTech’s first plan was to use mycelium to make coffee less astringent. But then the founders thought about all the shipping of coffee and it was too much work, treating it and shipping it back. It just didn’t make sense.

But food science needs those kinds of ideas in its toolbox. MycoTech said that there’s over a hundred products using it — that it’s making my iced tea and chocolate less bitter by adding a tiny amount of dried powder from mycelium spores.

It seems like there are a lot of different places that this technology could get used in the current food system. Where will they be most useful and transformational?

I see the most excitement for using mycelium as the protein source.

Even though our diet has plenty of protein sources, I think people want new solutions. We saw during the pandemic that people were really eager to test and try all the new plant-based foods. I wrote about tofu because it was flying off the shelf and you couldn’t find it during the pandemic.  People are looking for something that they can have in the back of the fridge and pull out, so especially with meat prices going higher, I think the most potential is for mycelium to become another key protein player.

It could be canned just like tuna fish, and I’ve heard it makes a great crab cake. It doesn’t have a ton of flavor that has to be stripped out. That’s one of the things that these companies are going to figure out as they build their libraries of spores: what has flavor? What grows fast? What needs the least nutrients? They’re going to be digging into all these questions.

So much of this innovation has been focused on creating convincing imitations of meat. Has there been any kind of motion towards branding mycoprotein as a thing that people might intrinsically want, like tempeh or tofu?

I spend a lot of time talking about this, because right now we’re just stuck in Food Tech 1.0, which is mimicry. We have to replace one for one: bacon has to be as good as real bacon, a steak has to taste just like a steak and have the same cut and grain of a real steak.

Quorn is basically a chicken nugget, but it has that name that’s really locked in people’s minds. So I think you might feel like it’s different. Because it’s like, “oh, I’m going to have Quorn.” Right? It’s like Xerox or Google with that brand recognition.

The Better Meat Co. is trying to brand its protein, calling it Rhiza, because that’s part of the name of the fungi. So I think they want that direction: sort of a tempeh, a tofu, or a paneer kind of name recognition.

Have you seen anybody trying to make fungi-derived protein powders or other kinds of isolates?

No, I haven’t seen that, but there are lots of people working with single cell organisms. Mycelium has all this great texture, so you’re basically creating it only to strip it apart. Companies should be thinking about the biggest bang for their buck, and protein powder is not it unless we’re talking about dairies who isolate whey protein because it’s a waste product that they already have. Mycelium isn’t a waste product yet.

So out of everything you’ve tried, are there any of these that you would buy if you could find them at a good price?

As these companies work on their processes and their iterations, nothing’s locked in yet. So I’ve seen a lot of evolution in the products. The best one I’ve had was an herb and black pepper steak from Meati. It came in a plastic package all marinated and ready to just be put in a frying pan. And then I fried it and even tried to take the fat and baste it on top with a spoon like they do with steak. It had a really phenomenal texture. I think that that’s what mycelium has in spades.

Sometimes they get flavor right and sometimes they don’t; early iterations were very mushroomy. I was more than content with this one because it had nice thickness and the herbs were really delicious.

I also thought the At Last bacon had a great consistency and texture and smokey flavor. It’s really clean label and I enjoyed it.

Top photo by Samarra Khaja/FoodPrint. 

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