Yeast ‘Rewiring’ Creates Designer Fats for Plant-Based Foods

14 September 2023


Plant-based foods often struggle to provide consumers with the same functionality and taste experience as their animal-based foods. Melt&Marble is addressing this challenge by producing designer fats that mimic the sensory characteristics of conventional meat through precision fermentation. Sweden-based Melt&Marble employs microbial engineering and precision fermentation to recreate the characteristics of animal fats “without the need for animals.”

The technology platform resulted from research by co-founders Dr. Anastasia Krivoruchko, Dr. Florian David and professor Jens Nielsen at Chalmers University of Technology.

Last year, the food tech company launched its “beef-like prototype” of non-animal fat that creates the buttery melt mouthfeel of conventional fat.

Food Ingredients First caught up with Dr. Anastasia Krivoruchko, CEO and co-founder of Melt&Marble, to understand the key facets behind attaining the right flavour through animal-free fats and how companies harness innovative technologies to create better fats.

According to a 2022 report by the Good Food Institute, sustainable alternative fat innovation is crucial for the success of the alternative meat industry. Fat is also an essential part of the meat-eating experience.

Melt&Marble is currently scaling up its production process and application development and plans to launch its first product, a fat for meat alternatives in 2024.

How does the right fat impact the flavor of plant-based meat?

Dr. Krivoruchko: A lot of the taste in meat products comes from the fat, which contributes to functionalities such as mouthfeel, juiciness and flavour release. Plant-based fats typically have different sensory characteristics than animal-based fats, which results in a “taste gap” between many currently available meat alternatives and animal-based counterparts.

For example, meat fat tends to melt slowly, resulting in slower flavour release and perception of juiciness. In contrast, plant-based fats like coconut oil melt faster, and the products aren’t as juicy, which is a big problem for a lot of products right now.

What role can precision fermentation play in ensuring food security?

Dr. Krivoruchko: Precision fermentation and fermentation in general, can produce key food components such as proteins and fats from simple sugars. Since these sugars can be derived from a variety of sources, such as existing waste or side-streams from food production processes, and fermentation itself is weather and climate independent, this gives us the ability to produce these key food components just about anywhere.

Some companies are looking at locally-produced food or waste streams and using fermentation to upcycle them into food components. For example, some Middle Eastern countries look at upcycling excess dates as a sugar source for fermentation-derived protein.

Since fermentation can be set up anywhere, it’s even being explored for space travel.

These developments are important for feeding growing populations, especially in the face of climate change and extreme weather events.

What tech do you use for creating fats for plant-based meat?

Dr. Krivoruchko: The core of our technology is around the programming that we do to the yeast to get it to produce specific fats. By rewiring the yeast’s metabolism, we can control properties such as fatty acid composition, saturation and assembly onto fats, which in turn affects functionality and sensory properties.

The production process is very similar to brewing, except that our yeast produces fats instead of alcohol.

Using this technology, we can produce fats much better than the status quo – fats that are more delicious, sustainable and healthy than those currently available.

What is your take on the changing food regulations around novel foods?

Dr. Krivoruchko: Ensuring product safety is essential when putting new food products on the market. That being said, regulations should not be unnecessarily bureaucratic or complex – accelerating the introduction of superior, healthier and more sustainable food options to the market benefits everyone.

Regulators should adopt pragmatic approaches to keep up with innovation in the sector. Of course, in the end, it’s up to consumers to decide whether they want to buy and eat novel foods.

To overcome skepticism, companies must be open and transparent about how new food production technologies work and address consumer concerns. From my experience, many people are quite open-minded and even excited to try novel foods, especially flexitarians. But at the end of the day – taste will be king in deciding whether they’ll continue buying them.

How is the novel food technology space evolving?

Dr. Krivoruchko: An increasing number of companies are emerging and harnessing innovative technologies to create better fats. These ventures span from novel methods to process fats from existing sources such as Lypid and CUBIQ to the exploration of groundbreaking fat production techniques like precision fermentation and animal cell culture by Mission Barns and Hoxton Farms.

These endeavors collectively promise to yield progressively superior alternatives to meat and dairy in the coming years.

What is the public’s perception of the alt-protein space?

Dr. Krivoruchko: We see a lot of negative headlines around the alternative protein space at the moment, and while many of the early products have fallen short of expectations, the current innovation in the space will ensure that these products continue to improve.

The central hypothesis behind meat alternatives – that the current way of producing meat is not sustainable – remains correct, and the almost daily reports on extreme weather events should serve as a reminder of the importance of changing to more sustainable consumption.

Many consumers are interested in animal-free alternatives to meat and dairy products but have so far been dissatisfied with the products available. We expect our products to bridge this divide and help revitalise the alternative protein industry.

Despite the current downturn, I believe the industry’s future is bright.

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