Can fungi replace meat for good?

05 November 2021 | Analysis | By Pooja Yadav

In recent years, plant-proteins have received heightened interest for their ability to improve health issues, where other sustainable food proteins such as fungi-derived proteins have been comparatively overlooked. Even though fungi as an alternative protein source is not a new concept but has been in question because of its safety concerns with respect to its consumption. Besides, many countries have accepted to diversify food basket with new sources and are exploring wild biota like uncultivated mushrooms, tubers, vascular and non-vascular epiphytes to identify the future food. However, despite the growing popularity of fungi as an ideal food in some countries, health professionals and experts still do not fully understand the potential for fungal protein supplements in India. Image Credit: Shutterstock Image Credit: Shutterstock

Fungal-derived mycoproteins are gaining popularity due to their ability to be produced at a low cost and their nutritional and environmental benefits. Consumed within the range of vegan and vegetarian foods, mycoproteins are produced at a scale using fermentation, producing high-quality protein with a relatively benign environmental footprint.

Research has pointed out that out of 60 grams of mycoprotein, is a sustainably produced food source rich in protein and essential amino acids, can give an optimal response regarding muscle protein synthesis. Mycoprotein, a nutritious protein source, has a meat-like texture and has a low carbon and water footprint, in comparison with chicken and beef.

Speaking about the growing demand for fungi Varun Deshpande, Managing Director, The Good Food Institute (GFI) India, Mumbai said, “Smart protein — from plants, cells, and microorganisms like fungi — have the potential to feed India’s growing population without the threats to public and planetary health that animal agriculture poses. While plant-based protein and cultivated protein are gaining momentum from the stock markets to consumers' plates all over the world, the potential of fermentation-derived protein is only just beginning to be unlocked. There exist more than 100,000 species of fungi — a rich tapestry of potential to uncover nutritious, affordable, highly sustainable sources of protein. With our unique advantage as a global bio-manufacturing hub and biotechnology powerhouse, India has the opportunity to be an industry leader in fermentation-based protein foods, if we are able to bring government, industry, and scientific research together in service of unlocking this potential.”  

Furthermore, a joint study conducted by the University of Exeter, England and UK based brand Quorn have found that mycoprotein, the protein-rich food source that is unique to Quorn products, stimulates post-exercise muscle building to a greater extent than milk protein.

Dr Benjamin Wall, Associate Professor of Nutritional Physiology, University of Exeter, UK said, "Our data show that mycoprotein can stimulate muscles to grow faster in the hours following exercise compared with a typical animal comparator protein (milk protein). We look forward to seeing whether these mechanistic findings translate to longer term training studies in various populations."

Many food-tech companies like UK-based Unilever and ENOUGH have come up with plant-based meat portfolios. The companies have partnered to bring plant-based meat products like ‘ABUNDA’, a mycoprotein that uses fungi as its base ingredient, to the market.

“There is beauty in blends and ultimately you need to use the combined properties of many ingredients to create the complex taste and textures our products are famous for, while at the same time making sure they are nutritious and sustainable. ABUNDA does all of that and will play an important role in the texture of our future products,” says Carla Hilhorst, EVP, R&D, Foods & Refreshment at Unilever, Netherlands.

Despite the potential of mycoprotein as a non-meat protein source, there are still challenges, mainly regarding its production costs.

 

Fungi as a protein supplement

There has been constant conflicting research regarding the consumption and safety of fungi. Apart from being rich in protein content, fungi are mostly linked with many side effects and bacterial infections.

A number of studies from 1977-2018 by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) have shown that the fungal ingredient used to make mycoprotein is an allergen. One of the CSPI studies even pointed out the dangerous reactions linked to mycoprotein including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea.

On the other hand, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United Kingdom’s Food Standards Agency have suggested mycoproteins as safe enough to be sold to the public.

Responding to the side effects of fungi, Manjari Chandra, a Functional Nutritionist, Wellness Coach, Max Healthcare, Delhi said, “From an allergy perspective, mycoprotein may be among the safest novel protein sources on the market. Mycoprotein is a nutritious, sustainable protein source in line with current dietary guidelines. Research suggests that mycoprotein may help maintain healthy blood cholesterol levels and promote muscle synthesis, control blood glucose and insulin, and increase satiety. As a protein, it is possible that some susceptible consumers will become sensitised, and subsequently develop a specific allergy. However scientific evidence indicates that the incidence of allergic reactions to mycoprotein remains exceptionally low. Mycoprotein, along with every other protein source, has some allergenic potential. However, the prevalence of allergic reactions is rare. Fungal mycoprotein's nutritional, health, and environmental benefits affirm its safety and role in a healthful diet.”

 

Is India ready?

Consumption of fungus in the form of mushroom and yeast has seen a tremendous growth in India till date. Fungi has been the ideal food globally because of its fairly high content of protein (typically 20-30 per cent dry matter as crude protein) which contains all of the essential amino acids, which gives India a higher chance to explore more protein alternatives.

Sharing insights on fungi as a new protein alternative in the country, Manjari said, “Mushroom proteins usually have a complete essential amino acid profile, which may cover the nutritional requirements of Indians, as well as may have certain economic advantages as compared to animal and plant sources. Many mushrooms also have the ability to grow in agricultural and industrial waste, as submerged cultures and can reach high yields in a short time. Edible mushrooms can be processed to obtain a wide variety of food products enriched with high quality protein, which may also have functional properties, giving them an added value.”

She further said, “With no methane emissions from grazing animals, meat-free proteins like soya, pea protein and mushrooms are better for the environment than farmed meat, a key driver of biodiversity loss. Mycoproteins from fungi do have a good chance as a food product in India.”

Driven by the urgent need to meet the future protein demand of the growing world population, the search for sustainable alternatives to animal proteins has gained momentum in recent years. The potential of plant and fungal proteins is suitable for the economic production of proteins in sufficient quantity and purity.

With increasing demand for mycoprotein in the world, and multiple benefits linked with fungi as a food source; it gives India a great chance to diversify its food options. Whereas, regulation and safety concerns for fungi as a food source in India is still in question today.

 Pooja Yadav

pooja.yadav@mmactiv.com

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