Meet the researchers: Tapping into the unexplored potential of an ancient technology

A technological twist on a widely used food production system is enabling researchers to develop tasty and nutritious new products.

A technological twist on a widely used food production system is enabling researchers to develop tasty and nutritious new products.

Dr Eddy Smid and Jasper Zwinkels are working on a GFI-funded project at Wageningen University and Research (WUR) in the Netherlands, using a fermentation method similar to that used to make tempeh – which they say has strong potential to be scaled up using existing infrastructure.

The team have experimented with feeding commonly grown crops and food industry byproducts to fungi never previously used in alternative protein research, including species producing edible mushrooms such as shitake. But rather than these ‘fruiting bodies’, they are interested in mycelium – the mushroom’s complex root structure, which has a remarkable ability to transform the organic material it digests.

One year into the project, the researchers have developed a prototype product with a meaty texture by growing mycelium on brown rice.

Their work has already demonstrated this method can improve the protein quality of raw ingredients, and products developed in this way can be biofortified with vitamin B12 – enabling it to deliver the nutritional qualities of meat even more effectively. 

The team will now go on to work with nutrition experts to explore whether Dutch families could swap conventional meat for their prototype as part of an evening meal.

They will also bring the product before a tasting panel, but initial chemical analysis has already revealed it shows promise, with large concentrations of the umami flavours associated with meat.

Infrastructure already exists

Alternative protein researchers and companies are using a range of innovative fermentation techniques, but the WUR team say their solid-state approach has the advantage that the substrate (such as brown rice) is already edible, removing the need for further steps to separate it from the fermentation-based protein.

Tempeh production in Indonesia

With almost limitless combinations of fungi and substrates – each producing different flavours and other qualities – the technique has huge potential to develop new products, while the researchers say their method will be easier to scale up and implement worldwide than other production methods, employing similar processes to those already used in tempeh factories.

“Tempeh is a staple food in many parts of the world,” Eddy said. “Products like this are commonly used in everyday life so the scale-up potential, and a lot of the infrastructure, is already there.”

Feeding 10 billion people
Eddy Smid. Credit: Guy Ackermans

Eddy brings a lifetime of microbiology expertise to the project. After completing a PhD at the University of Groningen, he worked in industrial research for decades before setting up a fermentation research group at WUR, just as attention was turning towards the need to develop more sustainable diets.

“People have fermented food products for millennia,” he said. “But the difference is we now have the knowledge to use it in new ways to create products that will help us feed a population of 10 billion people.”

Jasper Zwinkels. Credit: Guy Ackermans

He is also now involved in a €5.3 million Dutch Research Council-funded project alongside VU University Amsterdam, Delft University of Technology and companies including FrieslandCampina, Roquette and Upfield, using AI and large data sets to make the development of new foods more efficient.

“Currently, we take 150 strains and grow them on different substrates,” he explained. “That’s a lot of work and a very laborious approach. But there’s already a lot of data we can use to speed up the selection process.”

A decorative fungal display. Credit: Mystic Nature

His research partner Jasper’s fascination with fungi goes back to his childhood, when he helped out at his mother’s company growing decorative mushrooms – including species he’s working with now. “They’re as beautiful as flowers, but last a lot longer,” he said. 

Jasper became even more intrigued while completing undergrad and master’s degrees in food technology at WUR and now works as a PhD candidate on the GFI-funded project.

Jasper says a growing understanding of how fermentation can help tackle food sustainability is leading to an explosion of interest, helping develop tasty and healthy products that can be part of a future production system.

“Fermentation is not only the only solution,” he said. “But it has a lot of unexplored potential to develop new food products.”

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