'Plentify' novel single cell protein ‘ludicrously efficient’ to produce vs animal protein, claims startup

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Bryan Tracy: “We’re working with a bacteria that I can say with a high level of certainty that every single human being on this planet has in their gut microbiome today.”
Bryan Tracy: “We’re working with a bacteria that I can say with a high level of certainty that every single human being on this planet has in their gut microbiome today.”

Related tags alternative proteins Microbial fermentation Protein

A new player has emerged in the burgeoning alternative protein space touting a novel protein sourced from a bacterium found in the human microbiome, which it claims can give traditional animal and plant proteins a run for their money.

Produced by Brewed Foods, a subsidiary of alternative protein company White Dog Labs​ (WDL), Plentify is a lightly colored, savory tasting protein powder that can be used in a wide range of food applications from meat analogs to non-dairy milks.

Grown in fermentation tanks at record speed using a fraction of the inputs required to grow traditional food crops, or raise, feed and slaughter animals, Plentify will be offered as a branded ingredient to food & beverage companies and will also feature in ‘Eesy Cheese,’ a retail product Brewed Foods aims to bring to market directly.

Plentify doesn’t interact with other components in a formulation

If you try adding plant proteins to existing dairy-free cheese formulations (which are typically made from cultured nuts or combinations of oils and starches), “you get a nasty chewy, gummy type mess,” ​said Brewed Foods co-founder Dr Jonathan Gordon, the inventor of Silk soymilk and a high-profile figure in the world of plant-based food formulation.

“But Plentify is very unusual. What’s also appealing is that it doesn’t interact with itself or other components, so we can make a vegan cheese that’sradically different to anything on the market today with 4g of protein per ounce,” ​he told FoodNavigator-USA.

Dead or alive?

Clearly, bacteria-sourced protein is not something you’d find in Grandma’s kitchen cupboard, conceded Dr Gordon.

But it’s not some kind of sci-fi fantasy either, he stressed: “The notion of consuming bacteria has become very well established thanks to probiotics, although in our case, the bacteria are not ‘live,’ but are fully deactivated, so they’re entirely dead, and non spore-forming.”

It’s also part of a growing trend towards using microbes as microscopic food factories to produce everything from protein to high intensity sweeteners, said co-founder Dr Bryan Tracy (also WDL CEO), who said finding more efficient sources of high-quality protein is rapidly becoming a top priority for leading food companies and investors.

No genetic engineering

So how is Plentify made?

Unlike some other startups such as Perfect Day, Clara Foods and Motif FoodWorks, Gordon and Tracy are not using genetic engineering (eg. synthetic biology to ‘program’ microbes to produce target ingredients such as egg and dairy proteins).

“For a multitude of reasons we did not want to go the synthetic biology route,” ​said Dr Tracy.

Instead, they are working with a strain of bacteria that naturally produces high levels of protein when grown in a low-cost controlled fermentation in an anaerobic [without oxygen] environment using sugars from a variety of feedstocks [for the bacteria to grow in].

“We’re working with a bacterium that I can say with a high level of certainty that every single human being on this planet has in their gut microbiome today.”

He added: “Over the last decade there’s been a deeper appreciation of the depth and the composition of these microbiomes, these consortiums of microorganisms, and a major differentiator for WDL is that we have a keen ability to precisely mine these microbiomes, which others have not done because it’s quite difficult, particularly working with anaerobic microorganisms​ [bacteria that do not live or grow when oxygen is present and are commonly found in the gastrointestinal tract].”

Plentify contains 80-84% protein by dry weight, and small amounts of fiber, very small amounts of carbohydrate, minerals and vitamins.

80-84% protein by dry weight

Rather than extracting the protein to make a concentrate or isolate, they are producing a whole food ingredient, said Dr Tracy: "There’s no cracking​ [to open cells to release the protein], there’s no extraction, and there’s no secretion"​ of protein into the growth media.

What makes that whole food ingredient so attractive, is that it ​contains 80-84% digestible protein by dry weight, he said.

"It’s really unusual to have that level of protein,"​ he said. As a point of comparison, the ‘extremophile’ microbes being grown by Nature’s Fynd​ contain 50%+ protein.

Anything over 70% really puts you in uncharted territory. It has a very attractive amino acid profile although it's deficient in histidine, which hampers our PDCAAS score​ [around 0.75], although it’s very easy to supplement Plentify with a small amount of histidine​ [which can be found in things like hemp and faba beans] and get up to about 0.98 pretty quickly.”

Backed by Musea Ventures​ (created by Sass and Talli Somekh to invest in innovative new biotech companies), Brewed Foods is currently raising additional funds with a view to bringing products to market in the next 12 months.

Labeling and regulatory questions, consumer communications

A GRAS determination for the ingredient is being put together, and will be sent to the FDA in due course, said Tracy. “It’s a novel ingredient, but when we started looking at microbiota, one of our main search criteria was to select out those that might present regulatory concerns such as allergenicity​, antibiotic resistance, and so on.”

As for labeling, it's still under discussion, but most likely you would have the brand name Plentify followed by the bacterial strain in parenthesis (in the same way that you might see a strain of probiotic bacteria) or “something like ‘bacterial protein​,’” speculated Dr Gordon, who said the company would be talking to the FDA at every stage of the process.

'I would not describe Plentify as ‘plant-based;' rather, we will promote the fact that it is animal-free, vegan'

But how will Plentify fit into the ‘plant-based’ food movement?

“Claiming 'plant-based' is disingenuous for such an ingredient,” ​said Dr Tracy. “Our single-cell protein is derived from plants, but the product itself is a bacterium.  The other major ingredients of the Eesy cheese are plant-based. 

“So I would not describe Plentify or Eesy cheese as ‘plant-based.’  Rather, we will promote the fact that it is animal free, vegan - both in content and based on its production process, which does not use any animal inputs.”

Microscopic microbial protein factories and the future of food: ‘Ludicrously efficient’

While a variety of ‘alternate’ protein sources will likely gain traction in the coming years​,​ from new sources of plant protein, to cell-cultured or ‘cultivated’ meat, to proteins produced via microbial fermentation such as Plentify, Plentify is well placed to compete, argued Dr Gordon.

“The obvious advantage here is the incredible compactness of production. You can basically use waste products to fuel the process. We can produce tons of protein in an incredibly small footprint  consistently and efficiently.

"Protein production is also the primary purpose of the process ​[whereas most plants harvested for protein also contain large quantities of starch, oil or other components that producers need to find a market for, both for economic and sustainability reasons].”

It’s more efficient to produce than plant-based proteins, and compared to animal husbandry, “it’s ludicrously efficient," ​he argued.

Put another way, it takes months or years to grow plants and animals, and large amounts of land, energy and water, he said. “The doubling time of our organism is under two hours.”

Dr Tracy added: “We want to make fermentation-based protein ingredients with a price point that can be competitive for larger volume applications. I think there has been a lot of success with synthetic biology to create some really unique solutions, but the jury is still out if they are going to be able to be competitive price-wise and have mass market appeal.”

white dog labs

White Dog Labs​ was founded in 2012 with a mission to “harness natural microorganism diversity to address global challenges in food sustainability, climate change and human and animal nutrition​.”

WDL - which uses high-throughput selection techniques to isolate and cultivate microbiome-derived anaerobic microorganisms beneficial to animal and human health - has also invented technology enabling it to work with previously ‘unculturable’ bacteria while also improving the carbon efficiency of fermentation processes.

To date, this has demonstrated the potential for “unprecedented yields of bio-products on numerous sugar feedstocks," ​claims the Delaware-based company.

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