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, Superbrewed Food’s fermented microbial protein (brand name TBD) will initially hit the market in branded retail products such as mozzarella, block cheddar, and cream cheese, said co-founder Dr Bryan Tracy.
Down the road – as manufacturing capacity increases – it could also be offered as a branded ingredient to CPG companies looking to develop all manner of products from meat alternatives to protein beverages, said Tracy, who said finding more efficient sources of high-quality protein is rapidly becoming a top priority for the food industry.
The company - which has raised $45m to date (part equity, part debt, part grants) and is now raising additional funds to scale up production – is currently producing the protein from demo-scale facilities in Delaware, but recently purchased a large-scale ethanol production facility in Minnesota it is retrofitting to churn out significant quantities of the ‘brewed’ protein in early 2022.
(Ultimately the Minnesota facility could produce 20,000 tons/year, enough for one billion burgers or 500 million pizzas, said Tracy.)
‘It looks just like milk…It has great emulsification properties and foaming properties’
So why start with dairy alternatives?
Given that the protein has a white color and creamy texture, it was an obvious place to start, said Tracy, who plans to launch with a range of dairy-free cheeses including shredded mozzarella, cheddar, and cream cheese which he claimed boast superior functional properties (stretch, meltability) vs many plant-based cheeses (which typically have a base of oils and starches) but also some more compelling nutritional qualities (protein, vitamin B12).
“Before you dry it, it looks just like milk,” Tracy told FoodNavigator-USA. “It has great emulsification properties and foaming properties, and it works really well to fortify plant-based milks – especially nutmilks that have low levels of protein and can be a bit thin, as it adds protein and a rich, thicker, creamier mouthfeel without fat. It also works well in creamers and yogurts, but we’re still discovering new applications.”
One of a new breed of startups using microbes as microscopic food factories, Superbrewed Food (formerly White Dog Labs) is growing a fermented microbial protein containing up to 85% protein by dry weight, small amounts of fiber, very small amounts of carbohydrate, and minerals and vitamins including B12.
“Anything over 70% protein really puts you in uncharted territory," says co-founder Bryan Tracy. "It has a very attractive amino acid profile although it's deficient in histidine, although it’s very easy to supplement with a small amount of histidine [which can be found in things like hemp and faba beans] and get up to about 0.98 [PDCAAS score] pretty quickly.”
Whole food ingredient has 85% protein, plus meaningful levels of vitamin B12
Unlike so-called ‘precision fermentation’ players such as Clara Foods and Perfect Day, Superbrewed Food is not using synthetic biology to genetically engineer microbes to produce target molecules, but is instead growing Non GMO microbes (specifically, a bacterium commonly found in the human gut) directly as a food source.
Rather than extracting the protein to make a concentrate or isolate, it is producing a whole food ingredient, so there is no expensive cracking to open cells to release the protein, no extraction, and no secretion of protein into the growth media. The whole biomass – which is mechanically harvested via filtration – is simply washed and ready to go, said Tracy.
While there are a few other companies in this ‘biomass fermentation’ space such as Nature’s Fynd and Meati Foods, Superbrewed Food is unusual in that it grows its bacterium in a lower-cost anaerobic (without oxygen) environment using sugars from a variety of feedstocks.
The biomass – which has a milk umami taste and a pale white color - has extremely high levels of protein (up to 85% vs around 50% for Nature’s Fynd) and meaningful levels of vitamin B12, said Tracy.
The fermentation process also produces the beneficial short-chain fatty acid butyrate, which Tracy plans in time to introduce to the market separately as a postbiotic.
A GRAS determination for the protein ingredient is being put together, and will be sent to the FDA in due course, said Tracy. “We’re completing toxicology studies and what have you and so we’re looking at Q3, early Q4 [for self-GRAS] and then an FDA notification.”
Selling bacterial protein…
While ‘bacterial’ protein might seem like a tougher sell, than say, ‘nutritional fungi protein’ or ‘pea protein,’ the notion of consuming bacteria per se has become very well established thanks to probiotics, although the bacteria Tracy is growing is not ‘live,’ but fully deactivated, and non spore-forming, he stressed.
“The labeling has yet to be determined, but it would be something like fermented microbial protein with an asterisk that makes clear it’s of bacterial origin, as it’s not a fungus.”
Consumers, meanwhile, are enthusiastic about fermented foods, he claimed, and while the term ‘brewed’ is something they currently associate with beverages, the ‘brewing’ concept is something food marketers can lean into. “There’s an association of fermented food being nutritious and having craftsmanship associated with it.”
How do gorillas get so strong on a 100% plant-based diet?
Although it’s a little harder to get your head around, the impetus behind Tracy’s ingredient was also something that consumers grasp at some level, he said, as it goes back to the concept of a healthy microbiome.
So rather than discovering a microorganism growing in the soil, or in the wilderness, for example, Superbrewed Food started by looking at the digestive system of powerful land mammals such as gorillas, who eat a 100% plant-based vegan diet, but have bacteria in their guts that convert the plant biomass they consume into proteins that make them strong and agile, he said.
“So we’re looking at healthy digestive microbiomes. We said, there must be a protein specialist [bacteria] in there with a voracious appetite to consume plant biomass and grow with a super high concentration of protein. So the bacterium we’re using is literally native to our nutrition today.
“And to my knowledge, we’re the only company out there making food single-cell protein through anaerobic fermentation.
“Another thing that’s exciting is that a lot of anaerobic organisms produce and accumulate large amounts of B vitamins, so one teaspoon of our protein will give you about 20% of your advised daily serving of B12, and it’s non animal sourced.”
Superbrewed Food (formerly 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."
The company - 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.”