On paper, admits Josh Hahn, marketing director at the two-year old company, it sounds almost too good to be true: A ‘natural’ process that doesn’t involve genetic engineering that can create smooth, non-bitter coffee; chocolate that tastes great with no added sugar; stevia with no bitter aftertaste; and wheat minus virtually all of its gluten.
“No one else is doing anything close to what we are doing,” he told FoodNavigator-USA. “We have really pioneered a whole industry, it’s a transformative agricultural process and we’ve blown away a lot of people in the food industry. But it’s also hard for people to get their heads around.”
‘No one else is doing anything close to what we are doing’
Indeed, the sheer novelty of the process is MycoTechnology’s USP, but also something that makes it hard to deliver a pithy elevator pitch, says Hahn, who was talking to FoodNavigator-USA after MycoTechnology struck its first major deal in the stevia market this week.
Under the deal, Nascent Health Sciences will use one of MycoTechnology’s proprietary processes (MycoZyme) on its SoPure stevia to produce a high purity stevia extract claimed to have no bitter aftertaste.
Talks are also in the advanced stages with some of the leading players in chocolate and coffee, and most recently, top-tier firms in the grain industry after MycoTechnology revealed its MycoSmooth process could “virtually eliminate” gluten from wheat, and at the same time infuse the grain with 1-3 1-6 beta glucans and a highly digestible protein with all nine essential amino acids (although it doesn't have the same 'elastic' qualities) .
Two processes: One is fermentation-based, the other is enzymatic
So how does it work?
MycoTechnology has developed two key processes, and has a diverse suite of patents ranging from application-specific ones covering specific myceliated products, to “broad ranging patents covering myceliated agriculture,” said Hahn.
The MycoZyme process is an enzymatic process in which mushroom-derived enzymes are used to treat raw materials such as stevia, but serve as processing aids, so do not require labeling in the final product. It works best on powders, extracts and leafy products, and takes a few hours.
Tests on stevia show it can be used on raw leaves, crude extracts at 60% and Reb A at 95%, 97% and 99%, and produce stevia extracts with no bitter, metallic, licorice or lingering aftertaste.
The MycoSmooth process, meanwhile, is fermentation-based (and takes longer). Here, mushroom mycelium are ‘inoculated’ into a substrate (eg. coffee beans, cocoa beans, wheat) in the form of a liquid tissue culture that is sprayed onto the target food and left to work its magic.
During the fermentation process, the mycelium ‘eat’ bitter or undesirable compounds in the food and in some cases infuse it with nutrients such as immune boosting beta glucans 1-3,1-6. As the mycelium are present within the final food product (they are not just a processing aid), foods that have undergone the process must add ‘mushroom mycelium’ to the ingredients list.
To prove it has eliminated or neutralized the undesirable compounds in the target food, MycoTechnology conducts analytical and sensory tests, said Hahn: “We do HPLC testing to confirm what molecules have been eliminated/reduced and also do sensory testing.”
We do HPLC testing to confirm what molecules have been eliminated/reduced and also do sensory testing
But how scalable is the MycoSmooth process, and how does MycoTechnology ensure the mycelium work their magic evenly across all of the agricultural raw materials they are supposed to transform? And if you test one sample from a finished batch of coffee beans or wheat, is it representative?
According to Hahn, the process is “extremely scalable” and has uniform effects throughout a batch: “This is part of our intellectual property and trade secrets, part of which involves maximizing surface area and controlling for temperature. But sampling part of the batch is representative of the whole.”
He added: “A small amount can go a long way. If you wanted to do 100 million pounds of coffee, that would not be an issue for us. And the great thing about the process is that it’s not really expensive, it’s just a biological process.”
In some cases, the process can take 7-21 days; in others, it’s almost instantaneous
As for how the MycoSmooth process can be built into the manufacturing process for agricultural products, it depends on the crop, he said.
But to be effective, does the target food need to be laid out flat on a surface or can it be put into a fermentation tank?
This depends on the product, said Hahn, “but either method works” (but you don’t need a space the area of 10 football fields to ensure all the beans/grains are ‘transformed’, he stressed).
As to the length of the fermentation process, this too depends on the application, he said. “To start with it was a case of trial and error, as it depends on what you are trying to remove; for example some bitter compounds are harder for mushrooms to digest. In some cases the process can take 7-21 days but in others, it’s almost instantaneous.”
Application specific process
If you approach MycoTechnology with a food it hasn’t worked with before, it will identify the mushroom mycelium that work best on that specific substrate, and then there is process of trial and error to determine which will work most effectively and efficiently, he said.
However, from experience, the team knows which strains are most likely to work their magic on which end products, which speeds up the development process.
We’re still discovering all the amazing things mushrooms can do
So which applications are the most advanced for the company, which raised around a million dollars in a friends and family round in 2014 and is now working on a series A financing round?
The exciting - and daunting thing - for such a young company is that fact that each one of its applications has the potential to be a game changer, said Hahn, who says the work on stevia alone has generated a huge amount of interest given that the bitterness of Reb A has been a key barrier to its progress in some applications, where it still has to be masked or combined with sugar or other sweeteners.
"We have a deal with Nascent but we're also in discussions with several other stevia companies. On the coffee and chocolate side, we’re in late stage negotiations with key players in the market. For tea [from bitter-tasting tea leaves, or from green unroasted coffee beans, which are usually too bitter to drink as a tea] we’re in the earlier stages.”
Meanwhile, the work to remove gluten from wheat ‘naturally’ has also generated a ton of inquiries, he added: “We can remove the gluten by 99.9998%, but we’re working on getting even lower.
“It’s a really exciting time because our patent filings cover more than 400 different agricultural products, and we’re still only just starting to discover all the amazing things mushrooms can do.”
Consultant: An 'intriguing' new approach to tackling bitterness
Alex Woo, Ph.D. chief executive at consultancy W2O Food Innovation, told FoodNavigator-USA that when it came to handling bitter components, most of the industry had adopted a "mask and block strategy", so it was "intriguing" to see an alternative approach.
In some cases, the bitter components in foods were also the ones that provided the health benefits (eg. polyphenols), he said. However, for a product such as chocolate, the pros of eliminating certain bitter components outweighed the cons, he said, especially as the myceliation process added in beneficial nutrients such as beta glucans and formulators would not need to add so much sugar.