For the Future of Meat, Food Tech Startups Look Under Mushrooms
At a special dinner earlier this month, acclaimed chef Srijith Gopinathan served gnocchi with pine nuts, smoked kebabs and a Thai stir-fry with fragrant basil. There was one common ingredient tying all these dishes together: Mamu, a new alternative protein based on the roots of fungi.
“You can take this and create pretty much anything,” said Nirmal Nair, CEO of Sempera Organics, the Morgan Hill startup behind Mamu.
Unlike many plant-based alternatives to meat, which typically use a combination of grains, legumes and vegetables, Mamu is one of a number of new vegan proteins to draw on mycelium. Less well-known than mushrooms, the fruiting bodies of fungi that live above ground, networks of mycelium grow below the surface — and backers argue their fibrous structure and rich flavor lends itself well to the task of meat imitation.
“You don’t have to work hard to make Mamu taste good because of the simple fact that mushrooms are full of umami,” said Gopinathan, who earned two Michelin stars at San Francisco’s Taj Campton Place. Diners can now try Mamu, which also contains chickpeas, canola oil and mushrooms, at his Palo Alto restaurant Ettan, and soon at Little Blue Door in Los Altos and Oxford Kitchen & Gastropub in Sunnyvale.
The past three years have seen a surge in businesses focusing on mycelium, said Adam Leman, lead fermentation scientist at the Good Food Institute, a group that promotes the alternative protein market. Leman estimates there are 40 to 50 companies working with mycelium-based foods across the country.
Investment in companies producing proteins through fermentation, which includes but isn’t limited to mycelium-based foods production, was $1.69 billion in 2021 — nearly tripling over the previous year, according to figures from the institute. Sempera Organics has raised $1.8 million in its first round of seed funding in 2021 and hopes to raise another $1 million in its second round, Nair said.
To coordinate their growing influence, the Good Food Institute and 12 leading companies in the space recently joined forces to create a mycelial network of their own: the Fungi Protein Association, a trade lobbying group.
“It’s very important for the fungi protein movement to have a collective voice,” said Paul Shapiro, CEO of West Sacramento’s Better Meat Co., which is one of the group’s founding members.
The Better Meat Co. has seen $9.6 million in funding, said Shapiro, including from large meat companies like Johnsonville Sausage of Wisconsin. Shapiro’s team grows a mycelium-based protein called Rhiza in fermentor vats he compares to a brewery, “feeding” it with sugar-rich potato and wheat byproducts.
In side-by-side taste testing, Rhiza-based stand-ins for chicken and bacon have fared well, said Shapiro, though imitation steak hasn’t won over test subjects. The company’s deli meats have been a particular hit among corporate clients but aren’t yet available in stores.
Berkeley’s Prime Roots, another founding member of the Fungi Protein Association, has already entered the deli section at some Bay Area grocery Association, has already entered the deli section at some Bay Area grocery stores like Berkeley Bowl and Bi-Rite Market with cold cuts made from the mycelium of koji, the culture used to ferment soy sauce. Co-founder Kimberlie Le said customer reception has been “beyond expectations” so far.
Mycelium might require less coaxing to mimic meat, in contrast to some plant-based products, such as Impossible Burger, which relies on a genetically engineered ingredient to re-create the iron-rich taste of beef.
“You don’t have to conduct a lot of processes like you do on a plant in order to get it to look and taste like animal meat,” Shapiro said.
Meanwhile, Le said mycelium has a more naturally meat-like texture compared to the blended plant-based offerings that dominate now.
Perhaps for these reasons, eating such fungi is nothing new: Tempeh, a staple protein from Indonesia, is made with a fungus that grows mycelium fibers atop soybeans; huitlacoche, a corn fungus, is a prized ingredient in Mexican cuisine. Even mycelium-based meat replacements aren’t particularly novel: Quorn, a founding member of the new Fungi Protein Association, was established in the United Kingdom in 1985.
What is new about this recent crop of “mycoprotein” companies is the level of interest and investment they’ve achieved — especially with climate change as the impetus.
Similar to companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods that produce plant-based products, companies making mycelium-based foods advertise sustainability as a selling point. Better Meat Co. and Sempera Organics both say their products use a small percentage of land and water to make mycelium protein compared with a livestock farm. A study commissioned by Quorn showed that producing the company’s ground meat substitute uses 12 times less water than real ground beef.
Better Meat Co.’s Shapiro similarly cites the long process of feeding plants to animals in order to reap the protein rewards.
“You have to feed a cow for more than a year for you to get a steak and feed chicken for more than a month before you get the wings,” said Shapiro. “In our case, we feed our microbes for less than one day before we get the meat.”
But getting a true apples-to-apples comparison between the impacts and needs of animal foods versus mycelium-based foods is nuanced, said Tyler Barzee, an assistant professor of biosystems engineering at the University of Kentucky.
Barzee’s research found that proteins produced from fungi showed lower impacts on the environment from land use, water consumption and carbon dioxide emissions compared with some types of animal agriculture. Barzee’s mycelium produced as little as a twentieth of the carbon dioxide emissions produced per kilo of ground beef.
On the opposite side, Barzee’s research shows that cooked products from mycelium can require the same energy per kilo as producing fresh beef.
“There are some benefits, but the flip side of that is the energy use of maintaining fermenters (to produce mycelia) can be substantial,” Barzee said. “That’s a path where we need to look into improvements.”
The Good Food Institute plans to publish its own life cycle analyses for mycelium-based foods next year.
Backers of mycoproteins say there’s already a demand for their products. But meeting that demand is part of the challenge. Shapiro says his facility can only produce thousands of pounds per year. He’d like to build out a full- scale fermentation facility that can create millions of pounds per year.
And in order to have a real environmental impact and displace meat on the plate, products like Rhiza and Mamu will need to grow quickly.
“How do you feed 10 billion people without destroying the planet? We think Mamu is a solution for that,” said Nair of Sempera.
Barzee is a bit more measured in his outlook. “I don’t buy into the idea there's only one solution,” he said, “but it’s part of the puzzle and has the potential to play a role for several compelling reasons.”
Mario Cortez (he/him) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com
Mario Cortez joined The Chronicle Food & Wine team in 2022. He is originally from San Diego, where he contributed to local and online publications. He last worked at the Eureka Times-Standard, where he was sports editor and a sta' reporter. Cortez was also a regular writer for Eater San Diego.
He likes analog photography, playing soccer and, naturally, great food.