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What is precision fermentation and how does it work to create plant-based proteins?

Precision fermentation has revolutionised the way we make vegan proteins, both plant-based and from animal origin. This breakthrough technology now makes it possible to produce high-quality plant proteins quickly, efficiently and sustainably. But what is precision fermentation and how does it work?
A vegan precision fermentation tank

Precision fermentation has revolutionised the way we make vegan proteins, both plant-based and from animal origin. This breakthrough technology now makes it possible to produce high-quality plant proteins quickly, efficiently and sustainably. But what is precision fermentation and how does it work?

Read on to find out how this revolutionary process is transforming the food industry.

What is precision fermentation?

Precision fermentation is a process that uses genetically modified microorganisms to create plant-based ingredients that can replace animal-derived products — in a more sustainable and ethical way. It works by modifying common microbes such as yeast, algae and bacteria using biotechnology tools such as CRISPR and gene editing.

The modified organisms are then grown in brewery-style fermentation tanks and programmed to produce saleable materials like edible fats or proteins that are similar to animal products. The end result? Plant-based ingredients or finished products to eat.

A GMO — what does it mean?

Is it necessary to have GMOs, genetically modified organisms, for precision fermentation or are there other ways? Is the product produced by the microbe also a GMO?

Yes, unfortunately it is necessary to genetically engineer the microbe — unless, the microbe produces the relevant substance naturally, which then would be traditional fermentation such as yeast producing beer for example.

The products of the microbes, fats or proteins, which are produced using precision fermentation, can then be turned into final consumer products such as milk, cheese, animal-fats or even meat. While the process itself relies on GMOs, the end products produced by the microbes are not themselves considered GMOs.

However, they are still considered products of genetic engineering by organisations like the Non-GMO Project.

Examples of vegan foods produced by precision fermentation

Precision fermentation is already in use, producing well over 99% of the world’s insulin and 99% of the world’s rennet. It is also producing the first vegan products that are identical to animal proteins, but where no animals have been harmed in the production process. Let’s take a look at some amazing examples of vegan foods made with precision fermentation:

Milk and dairy

By encoding milk protein DNA sequences into microorganisms such as yeast or fungi and fermenting them with nutrients and sugars, precision fermentation can produce proteins identical to those found in cow’s milk.

This technology is at the heart of start-ups such as Real Deal Milk, which aims to create sustainable, vegan dairy products that taste like traditional dairy.

Egg and other animal proteins and fats

Although not as advanced as milk production, precision fermentation can produce animal-free egg proteins and other ingredients that improve the taste and functionality of plant-based and animal-derived products. It therefore has the potential to make vegan food more appealing to a wider audience, encouraging more people to adopt a plant-based diet.

Advantages of precision fermentation in creating plant-based products

Although precision fermentation relies on GMOs, it offers several advantages over traditional agriculture and animal farming — besides the fact that it is not harming animals and thus vegan.

Precision fermentation offers a powerful way to create tailored ingredients with specific functional applications. It can be used to make plant-based products and cultivated meats with enhanced sensory characteristics.

These meats can have enhanced functional properties such as the addition of proteins, enzymes, flavour molecules, vitamins, pigments and fats for a more enjoyable experience. Best of all, these specialised ingredients can be produced with greater purity, even at lower levels!

Quality and consistency

One of the key benefits of precision fermentation is the ability to achieve high levels of quality and consistency in vegan foods. This is often difficult to replicate using conventional methods, but precision fermentation allows the production of animal-free ingredients that are nutritionally equivalent to their animal-based counterparts. The result is foods with superior taste, texture and nutritional value.

Beneficial nutrients

Increasing beneficial nutrients such as lipids, minerals and vitamins by enabling the production of animal-free products, precision fermentation can provide the world with more nutritious ingredients, especially when added to plant-based foods. It not only improves the health benefits of these foods, but also can fill some of the nutritional gaps in purely vegan diets.

Reduced environmental footprint

The environmental benefits of precision fermentation are also remarkable. The technology uses significantly fewer resources and generates less waste during the production process than traditional methods. For example, according to Perfect Day, a precision fermented milk company, precision fermentation uses 99% less water, 97% less greenhouse gases and up to 60% less energy than animal-based production of the same products.

This reduced environmental footprint makes precision fermentation an attractive option for sustainable food production.

Essential compounds for vegan diets

Precision fermentation can produce foods high in protein, omega-3s and other healthy compounds that are often lacking in vegan diets.

Examples include Perfect Day’s dairy proteins, Clara Foods’ egg proteins and Impossible Foods’ heme protein. These ingredients can enhance the sensory and functional properties of plant-based products or farmed meats, making them more appealing and nutritious to consumers.

Reduced risk of spoilage

The fermentation process takes place in a sterile environment, minimising the risk of contamination by harmful microorganisms. As a result, the final product is safer to eat and has a longer shelf life.

Lower sugar content

Traditional fermentation processes often require sugar to achieve the desired texture, but precision fermentation allows the sugar content to be reduced without compromising the quality of the final product. This makes it a healthier option for consumers looking for low-sugar alternatives, for example with dairy and milk.

Cost savings

The reduced risk of spoilage means there is less waste in the production process, leading to increased cost savings for manufacturers.

In addition, the use of precision fermentation can lead to faster production times, allowing vegan-friendly products to reach the market faster. This not only benefits manufacturers, but also meets the growing consumer demand for plant-based alternatives.

Challenges to widespread adoption

Some of the challenges that make it costly at this stage of the innovation curve and that need to be addressed for the widespread adoption of precision fermentation are:

Difficulties in grading and isolating microorganisms

One of the main challenges of precision fermentation is identifying and isolating the appropriate microorganisms to convert minerals or plant matter into proteins or other useful ingredients. This process requires extensive research and experimentation to find the most efficient and effective strains for specific applications.

Selecting suitable microorganism strains

Different strains may have different levels of efficiency and effectiveness in producing the desired end product. Researchers must carefully evaluate the potential advantages and disadvantages of each strain before incorporating it into the fermentation process.

Precision fermentation process control

Maintaining control over the fermentation process is critical to achieving consistent results. This involves monitoring factors such as temperature, pH and nutrient availability to ensure optimal conditions for microorganisms to thrive and produce the desired products. Inconsistencies in these factors can lead to variations in the final product, which can affect its quality and safety.

Risk of contamination

The risk of contamination is a major concern, which is why precision manufacturing is subject to rigorous regulatory testing and approval processes. Microbial contamination can occur through the use of non-sterile substrates or poor hygiene practices during the production process.

Contamination can reduce the concentration of the final product and render industrial yeast strains unusable, leading to increased costs and potential safety risks.

Obtaining regulatory approvals

Obtaining regulatory approvals is a costly hurdle for the precision fermentation industry. Because the technology is relatively new and involves the use of genetically engineered microorganisms, it must undergo rigorous testing and evaluation to ensure its safety and efficacy. This process can be time consuming and costly, potentially delaying the commercialisation of products derived from precision fermentation.

Precision fermentation companies

Some notable examples of vegan foods produced by precision fermentation include:

Perfect Day’s dairy proteins

California-based startup Perfect Day uses precision fermentation to produce animal-free, milk-identical whey protein. This protein can be used in various dairy products such as ice cream, cream cheese and chocolate, offering consumers a vegan alternative with the same taste and texture as traditional dairy products.

The Every Company’ egg proteins

The Every Company (formerly Clara Foods) is another company harnessing the power of precision fermentation to create vegan egg proteins. These proteins can be used in a variety of egg-based products, providing a cruelty-free and environmentally friendly option for consumers seeking plant-based alternatives.

Impossible Foods’ heme protein

Perhaps the most well-known example of precision fermentation in action is Impossible Foods, a California-based vegan meat company. They use this technology to produce their own haemoglobin protein, which gives their plant-based burgers a realistic taste and texture similar to traditional beef.

Real Deal Milk

Spanish startup Real Deal Milk uses precision fermentation to make traditionally popular dairy products like cheese and yoghurt without cows. Their mission is to produce superior, sustainable dairy products and feed the world with vegan alternatives.

Change Foods

Change Foods is creating animal-free dairy products such as cheese, using precision fermentation. Their aim is to create vegan cheese that closely resembles the taste and texture of traditional dairy cheese.

TurtleTree

Singapore-based biotech company TurtleTree is developing the milk protein lactoferrin using precision fermentation. This protein can be used in a variety of dairy products to provide a vegan alternative with the same nutritional benefits as traditional dairy.

These examples demonstrate the potential of precision fermentation to create a wide range of vegan foods that closely mimic the taste, texture and nutritional value of their animal-based counterparts. As more companies adopt this technology, we can expect to see an increasing number of innovative and sustainable plant-based alternatives come to market.

Sources: Good Food Institute, Cellag, Vegnews, Ethicalunicorn, Company Websites, Company social media

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