Jeremy Chignell speaks to Amanda Jasi about the promise of alternative proteins
FERMENTATION is arguably the world’s oldest biotechnology and has been used to create products from beer and bread, to insulin for diabetics. Now, it offers a route to a greener food system via alternative protein production.
In a 2019 report IPCC states that 21–37% of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions occur in the food system, arising in the supply chain from agriculture and land use to consumption. Alternative proteins could help reduce emissions, energy demand and land use.
We caught up with Jeremy Chignell, Senior Fermentation Specialist at the Good Food Institute (GFI), to ask about the promise of fermentation for producing alternative proteins and the opportunities for chemical engineers in advancing the technology.
Discussing alternative proteins, Chignell said: “One side of the coin is trying to really match animal-based products as closely as possible.” This includes proteins from plants, cultivated meat made using animal cell cultures, and the fermentation technology invented by Quorn.
“But if you know much about biology you know that protein is not equivalent to meat. Protein is a molecule and can take as many, probably more forms than there are atoms in the known universe. That’s how big the solution space is for protein. It can have many shapes, many functions…it doesn’t have to be a burger, it doesn’t have to be a cut of ‘meat’ on your plate, it doesn’t even have to be anything that you notice in your food.
“That, I think, is really sort of the next level, which is using biotech to make a protein product that you would add to other dishes. And so here, it’s more along the lines of a protein supplement. You might think of the way that you use eggs in baking. Instead of using eggs, you could make a protein product that you add to your food that adds a lot of protein – so it has all the nutritional benefits of eggs…but you don’t have to have a chicken involved.”
This is where precision fermentation comes in. Fermentation of alternative proteins comes in three forms: traditional fermentation, which uses microorganisms to modulate and process plant-derived ingredients, such as in bread and beer production; biomass fermentation, which relies on the fast growth and high protein content of many microorganisms to efficiently produce large quantities of protein; and precision fermentation, which uses microorganisms – usually genetically modified – as “cell factories” to produce specific functional ingredients.
Protein is a molecule and can take as many, probably more forms than there are atoms in the known universe
Importantly, Chignell highlights the different technologies do not have to compete, contemplating an example in which fats produced by precision fermentation are combined, for example, with biomass generated via biomass fermentation, to create a “more appealing” hybrid product.
Precision fermentation is “powerful in the sense that you can really have a lot of control over the design,” says Chignell. It can be used to create specific protein targets and “for food, for precision fermentation I expect the trend to continue where you see more of these kinds of very targeted proteins” that could offer “highly dense, concentrated protein, and so you add that to your food, and you immediately boost the protein content”.
“I think the exciting thing about fermentation is that it’s like the oldest biotechnology that we have.” And it’s scalable.
“As far as scaling up for alternative proteins goes, the major roadblocks are the same that you’d experience for making any new product.”
A key challenge is achieving at-scale production while competing with the costs of products that are both established and cheap, such as dairy milk.
Process improvements could help increase commercial viability. Chignell says that because precision fermentation is a maturing field, there are an “array” of optimisation options available at each step.
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