Meet the researcher: pioneering sustainable fat with biomass and precision fermentation
Across Europe, researchers are finding new ways of using well-established technologies to develop sustainable fats with the same the complex flavour as conventional meat.
10 October 2023
Across Europe, researchers are finding new ways of using well-established technologies to develop sustainable fats helping plant-based and cultivated meat to replicate the complex flavours of conventional meat.
Kari Koivuranta has spent his career using microbes to turn raw materials into biodiesel at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and is now putting those skills to use at the centre’s CERAFIM project.
Kari’s work focuses on using byproducts from industries such as agriculture, forestry and food processing to feed microbes, developing lipids or fatty acids.
With much of the flavour and mouthfeel of conventional meat coming from fat, these ingredients will be key to developing alternative proteins capable of meeting consumers’ taste and texture expectations.
The project aims to use precision fermentation to develop lipids that will be molecularly identical to beef fat – a potential game-changing addition to plant-based foods.
With many plant-based companies using palm oil and cocoa butter as their main fat ingredient, the researchers are also using microbes to help companies develop more sustainable alternatives to these products.
Fats ‘critical’ to wider adoption of alt proteins
They are also looking at ways of adapting lipids to improve the flavour and nutritional quality of plant-based meat – something Kari says will be ‘critical’ in encouraging wider adoption of these foods. “If meat eaters try them and they don’t taste right, they’ll walk away,” he said.
This view is shared by Milena Ivanisevic, Science Manager at Connectomix Bio, which is running a Good Food Institute-funded project developing better fatty acids.
“Alternative proteins on their own aren’t enough at the moment,” she said. “Now companies are looking for something that’s able to deliver what consumers want and I think microbes are a perfect platform for that.”
Their project aims to use fermentation to manufacture two critical lipids – phospholipids and triacylglycerols. Phospholipids, also known as lecithin, contribute to taste in meat and are also used as emulsifiers, thickening agents and creamers, while triacylglycerols are found in vegetable oils and animal fats and contribute primarily to the texture of foods.
Their technique involves using methane to feed the microbes – an approach that offers huge potential for scaling up by leveraging growing biomethane infrastructure and can be carried out anywhere in the world. The European Union has set ambitious targets for the scale-up of biomethane production by 2030.
Improving on nature’s designs with precision fermentation
The company’s Managing Director Dorian Leger says the process could also be adapted to develop fatty acids using air, water, and photovoltaic-generated electricity as a feed source. A similar process is being used by companies such as Finland’s Solar Foods to produce protein.
“Photosynthesis has been the basis of all food web for the last two billion years,” said Dorian, who wrote a paper describing how solar-powered microbial protein production is 10 times more efficient than conventional agriculture. “Now we’re looking at breaking that paradigm and improving on nature’s designs by combining the best of human engineering with the best of what nature is able to do.”
Connectomix Bio is experimenting with using different gases, feedstocks and microbes to work out which is the most economical, as these inputs can have an enormous effect on the types of fatty acids produced.
Growing role for startups
Their findings will be shared in a techno-economic assessment analysing the best way to use this process. Meanwhile, the startup is also developing a guide to the best equipment for startups wanting to move into this area.
These researchers are clear that the role microbes can play in developing fats for the alternative protein sector is only just beginning to be appreciated.
Kari also believes research into this work still has a long way to go but says the area is fast inspiring new startups. He adds that artificial intelligence can help to optimise production and as the technology develops, it may become possible to develop entirely new types of fats not found in nature – expanding the horizons of sustainable and healthy food production.
“Alternative proteins provide the way for more healthy and environmentally friendly food production,” Milena said. “But now we’re starting to look more closely at what consumers want and we can see there’s a lot of room for improvement. A lot of people are now starting to realise that lipids are what’s missing when it comes to improving taste and texture.”
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