Keith Nunes 2019

KANSAS CITY — Precision fermentation is emerging as a leading edge of food and beverage ingredient innovation. The list of companies investing in the process is growing, and the ingredients under development have advanced beyond traditional vitamins and flavorings to animal-free ingredients that one day may accelerate innovation across such diverse markets as meat, dairy, baked foods and beverages.

The precision fermentation process is not new. It involves the programming of microorganisms to produce specific organic molecules that then may be “grown” for industrial use. It has been in the past 10 years that the food industry, most notably startups, have begun targeting specific ingredient innovations. Unlocking the potential of the process has been the use of artificial intelligence and other advanced techniques to rapidly identify ingredients that may offer improved functionality or added health attributes.

Some innovations may be described as remarkable. For example, the Dutch ingredients company Fooditive is on the cusp of scaling the production of bee-free honey. Achieving this feat involved copying honey DNA into a proprietary strain of yeast that is then fed with nutrients to replicate the processes that occur in the honeybee stomach and yields a product with the same characteristics and functionality of bee-produced honey, according to the company.

Such advances are prompting others in the ingredients industry to accelerate investments and establish partnerships to capitalize on the potential offered by precision fermentation. Ingredient supplier Kalsec is working with biotechnology developer Willow Biosciences Inc. to research precision fermentation processes for a high-volume, natural food application.

Motif FoodWorks is working with Vectron Biosolutions to create animal-free proteins. Building on their efforts from the last two years, the project seeks to improve the taste and texture of dairy alternatives with new proteins.

And functional ingredients producer Shiru, Inc. is partnering with the Puratos Group to evaluate and develop an egg replacement produced through precision fermentation. The partnership also aims to produce a variety of other new ingredient alternatives for plant-based baked foods using Shiru’s protein discovery process.

Each of these initiatives and many others have the potential to bring new ingredients to market that offer food manufacturers options to meet consumer needs. However, one must expect, similar to the development of other innovative processes, there will be critics.

While precision fermentation and other associated production techniques are not new, it is a process that may not be easily understood by many consumers. This knowledge gap will allow critics to position the technology as unnatural or potentially unsafe. Fortunately, research by HealthFocus International has shown some consumers are willing to sacrifice a product’s clean label designation if unfamiliar ingredients in the formulation promise a sustainable benefit. Many ingredients developed through precision fermentation offer such a benefit.

The potential of precision fermentation on ingredient development is significant. Although hurdles to scale and overall acceptance remain, it is easy to envisage a day when the options available in a product developer’s toolbox are more numerous depending on the attribute to be delivered.