• The global market for alternative proteins is growing fast.
  • Mycoprotein from fermented mushrooms can create meat-free alternatives.
  • Meat-free proteins are better for the environment than farmed meat.
  • They could help create a more sustainable food system.

Fungi-focused food startups are starting to sprout almost overnight.

New producers are finding innovative ways to supply the growing market for alternative proteins, alongside plant-based burgers, sausages and “chicken” nugget substitutes made from soy, pea or other proteins.

Fermenting the root-like spores of specific mushrooms (using the same, age-old process that creates beer and bread) produces a protein rich, flavourless foodstuff called mycoprotein.

Once processed, mycoprotein can be used to make a variety of substitute meat products, and its naturally meat-like structure gives both a cost and texture advantage over plant-based proteins, which have to go through an additional process to reproduce the texture of meat.

Fermented fungi proteins have been in supermarkets since the 1980s, when UK brand Quorn patented their mycoprotein production processes. But now that the patents have expired, a new breed of food innovators have big plans for the humble mushroom.

Next wave of mushroom mania

Swedish company Mycorena plans to use mycoprotein as an ingredient to help partner food companies produce vegan food products. Rather than sell directly to consumers, the aim is to supply ingredients, technology and expertise to help food companies with little experience of the alternative proteins market create own-label meat substitute products based on mycoprotein.

The company has helped a Swedish brand create a range of mushroom-protein meatballs, sausages and chicken nuggets, and is busy developing new products like meat-free bacon.

Innovation starts with finding the right mushroom. Startup Nature’s Fynd of Chicago, has discovered a low-carbon method of producing mycoprotein using a fungi strain sourced from Yellowstone National Park.

The “Fy” fungi protein is grown in heated chambers fitted with shallow trays, instead of large bioreactors used by many competitors; a process suited to urban factory production. This unique way of producing products like meat-free breakfast patties and dairy-free cream cheese has attracted investor interest.

Aalant based vegetarian burger is pictured in a restaurant
Alternative protein burgers have made it onto the menus of several mainstream burger chains
Image: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

For one entrepreneur, mycoprotein’s potential is about more than producing meat substitutes. Colorado-based MycoTechnology turns fungi into a flavour enhancer that blocks taste receptors on the human tongue, masking the bitter taste associated with some plant-based proteins. The technology is already used in fizzy drinks to overcome the bitterness of artificial sweeteners.

“We’re focused on driving sugar, salt and fat out of foods,” CEO Alan Hahn told Wired.

Plans are in place to build a factory that can annually produce 20,000 metric tonnes of mycoprotein grown on tropical fruit, which would otherwise be wasted.

Plant-based market growing

While some food fads come and go, demand for alternative proteins is here to stay, according to the Plant-Based Foods Poised for Explosive Growth report by Bloomberg Intelligence.

Plant-based meat alternatives are predicted to exceed $74 billion by 2030, up from around $4.2 billion currently, with industry giants like Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods, Eat Just and Oatly helping drive market momentum.

Growing demand has seen several major global fast-food burger chains add plant-based options to their menus.

a chart showing that the market for plant-based meat alternatives could exceed $60 billion by 2030
The market for plant-based meat alternatives could exceed $160 billion by 2030.
Image: Bloomberg Intelligence

The carbon footprint of funghi

With no methane emissions from grazing animals, meat-free proteins like soy, pea protein and mushrooms are better for the environment than farmed meat, which is a key driver of biodiversity loss.

In July, the Carbon Trust compared the carbon footprint of Quorn’s mycoprotein products against other forms of meat and plant-based protein.

It found beef mince has the highest carbon footprint and soybeans the lowest. The Quorn products were found to have relatively low carbon footprints.

this chart shows how Quorn products stack up environmentally against other sources of protein
How Quorn products stack up environmentally against other sources of protein.
Image: The Carbon Trust/Quorn

With Earth’s population set to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, these foods could also help tackle food scarcity in the coming years.

Rethinking the way we produce and consume food is crucial to a sustainable future. To that end, the Food Systems Initiative — part of the World Economic Forum's UpLink platform to source and elevate innovations to some of the world's biggest challenges — supports innovative technological solutions that positively impact food systems.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

Climate change poses an urgent threat demanding decisive action. Communities around the world are already experiencing increased climate impacts, from droughts to floods to rising seas. The World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report continues to rank these environmental threats at the top of the list.

To limit global temperature rise to well below 2°C and as close as possible to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, it is essential that businesses, policy-makers, and civil society advance comprehensive near- and long-term climate actions in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The World Economic Forum's Climate Initiative supports the scaling and acceleration of global climate action through public and private-sector collaboration. The Initiative works across several workstreams to develop and implement inclusive and ambitious solutions.

This includes the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, a global network of business leaders from various industries developing cost-effective solutions to transitioning to a low-carbon, climate-resilient economy. CEOs use their position and influence with policy-makers and corporate partners to accelerate the transition and realize the economic benefits of delivering a safer climate.

Contact us to get involved.

Mushroom mycoprotein could play an important role in the high-protein, vitamin-rich, sustainable diets of tomorrow - but with UpLink’s support through its Mobilizing ‘Protein Diversification’ challenge the menus of the future could also hold some surprises.

Today, innovative projects are also underway to develop alternative proteins like cultivated caterpillars and green ants.