Food Entrepreneur CHICAGO — The categories of non-animal-based meat and dairy are experiencing disruption as startups explore emerging ingredients and processes. Many of these products are getting closer to reality. In fact, so much so, that some are receiving high accolades when competing against animal-based products, which unfortunately, does not always have a positive outcome.

That’s what happed with the vegan blue cheese from Climax Foods, Berkeley, Calif. The “cheese” was selected as a finalist by the Good Food Foundation (GFF) for a Good Food Award in January. It was the first time a plant-based cheese made it to the finals since being allowed to compete against dairy cheese five years ago.

A confidential letter sent to the company by the GFF stated the blue cheese would be crowned the winner, as reported by The Washington Post. But one week before the winners were to be announced, the GFF disqualified Climax after a complaint about one of its ingredients.

It was not the formulation of pumpkin seeds, lima beans, hemp seeds, coconut fat and cocoa butter that make up most of the product, but rather it was the kokum butter, which is a fat derived from the seeds of a fruit-bearing tropical tree called the kokum tree. While kokum butter long has been used in cosmetics, there’s little historical use of it in food. Thus, it may not meet the “Generally Recognized As Safe” (GRAS) designation by the US Food and Drug Administration, a new requirement by the GFF for the awards.

Enter artificial intelligence

How did Oliver Zahn, chief executive officer of Climax Foods and developer of the blue cheese, identify kokum butter as an invaluable component? It was through artificial intelligence (AI).

He said he believes that plants are far more genetically diverse than animals and serve as great building blocks for food optimization. The infinite combinations of plant-based ingredients may be optimized to produce indistinguishable alternatives to animal-based products.

“We started from a profound appreciation for the complex flavors and textures of dairy products,” Zahn said. “Cows have made our milk for thousands of years. However, less than 10% of the plants they eat get turned into food for humans, which has led to significant environmental and health problems in today’s much more crowded world.

“It is human nature to rethink ancient practices, so we came up with a smarter way. By using data science to accelerate plant-based ingredient and process discoveries, we are saving thousands of years of tinkering to create products that are just as tasty as the cow-based predecessors without the downsides, today.”

Boulder, Colo.-based Meati Foods used AI from PIPA LLC, Davis, Calif., to accelerate its understanding of the nutritional and functional opportunities offered by mycelium, also known as mushroom root. The use of AI has enabled Meati Foods to develop its animal-free whole-food protein cuts.

“When founding Meati and unpacking what it would take to achieve global-scale impact on our food system, the requirements were monumental,” said Justin Whiteley, Meati Foods’ co-founder and chief science officer. “It had to be a delicious, whole-food solution plucked from nature, rapidly scalable and, critically, hyper-nutritious. We know Meati is a whole food containing a wide array of nutrients that can be valuable additions to anyone’s diet. AI is the perfect tool to help accelerate our understanding of exactly why including Meati products can improve the health of everyone at the family dinner table.”

Meati products — classic and crispy cutlets and classic and carne asada steaks —are complete proteins. The complex array of other nutrients naturally present in Meati products suggests the potential for positive impact on heart health, digestion, the immune system and blood glucose levels, according to the company.

More than a plant

Nature’s Fynd, Chicago, also uses fungi protein to formulate its meatless breakfast patties and dairy-free cream cheese. Earlier this year, the company launched a fungi-based yogurt. It has a thick and creamy consistency without the grittiness often found in high-protein and plant-based yogurts and is nutritionally dense with 8 grams of protein and 4 grams of fiber. The peach and strawberry yogurts feature only 8 grams of added sugar while the vanilla yogurt has 9 grams. They all are loaded with live and active cultures and are free from artificial flavors or preservatives.

“In a crowded market of dairy-free yogurts that often sacrifice nutrition for taste or vice-versa, we have created the world’s first fungi-based yogurt,” said Thomas Jonas, CEO and co-founder. “It is delicious, nutrition-forward and earth-friendly.”

Sweden-based Veg of Lund AB explored scientific food research to identify that the potato protein offers an excellent amino acid profile, with a biological value of 90 to 100. It is on par with an egg, said Helene Nielsen, CEO.

“The biological value of potato protein, which indicates how well the protein is absorbed, is also significantly higher than that of soy, oat or almond proteins,” she said. “This is highly unique for a vegetable.

“Eva Tornberg, professor in food technology at Lund University, saw potential in using potatoes as a base for a multitude of vegan and plant-based alternatives. She proceeded to develop a unique, patented method for producing a heat-stable, vegan emulsion made from potatoes and rapeseed oil, which forms the basis of all Veg of Lund innovations.”

Veg of Lund’s business model is to conduct its own or licensed production and sale of plant-based foods under the DUG brand. Fluid products are currently the company’s focus, in particular, coffee whiteners for use by baristas and throughout the coffee channel.

“Consumers want good plant-based food that is climate-smart, healthy and preferably free of allergens,” Nielsen said. “Countries have strategies to reduce their climate impact, and investors are looking for sustainable companies to be able to increase their return on invested capital. In recent months, we have established DUG in several countries, most recently in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Germany. I expect that we will soon be able to complete the list with distributors in several countries.

“As a company in a market that is partly in a build-up phase, we must increase our presence and strengthen our position in the markets that offer the best conditions for rapid sales development,” she said. “In addition to this, we can launch new products such as ingredients as well as cooking and whipping cream, ice cream and a meat analogue. We see great opportunities for these new categories.”

Good Planet Foods, Bellevue, Wash., is an alternative cheese manufacturer that uses olive oil and now is using the same technology to make sharp cheddar and smoked gouda slices. Most vegan cheeses are formulated with coconut oil,and therefore contain high amounts of saturated fat. With olive oil, a slice has zero grams of saturated fat, zero mg cholesterol and less than half the calories compared to dairy cheese, according to the company. The olive oil also delivers flavor, texture and meltability.

Another go-to ingredient in the alternative space is soy, but it is also a common allergen. This is why plant-based snack kit maker Mighty Yum, Boca Raton, Fla., has reformulated soy out of the plant-based turkey with cheese and plant-based ham with cheese Munchables lunch kits. The plant-based meats and cheeses now are made with vegetables, such as parsnips, chickpeas, sweet potatoes and tomato puree.

Seoul, South Korea-based Armored Fresh is a food technology company that makes plant-based cheese. The company has offices in McLean, Va., and is entering the US condiment category with an oat milk cheddar dip for foodservice. Operators may season the product to meet the desired taste profile, everything from a nacho topper to a pretzel dipper.

A growing number of food technology companies also are relying on precision fermentation. It’s a technology that has been around for a little more than three decades and is being used to produce food and food ingredients in more earth-friendly manners.

It involves using bioengineering techniques to program microorganisms by giving them a specific genetic code to produce a compound of interest when fermented under precise conditions. The genetic code is the exact copy of the DNA sequence found in a digitized database on animal or plant DNA sequence; however, it requires no animal or plant involvement. The result is the molecularly identical ingredient made by microorganisms.

Onego Bio uses the technology to produce animal-free egg proteins. Onego Bio’s ingredient is bio-identical to ovalbumin, the primary protein in egg white. It provides the same functionality and nutrition without the environmental, ethical and safety-related concerns of eggs from chickens.

Imagindairy, an Israeli-based food tech startup with offices in San Francisco, now owns and operates industrial-scale precision fermentation production lines focused on the production of all types of animal-free dairy ingredients. The achievement follows the company receiving a “no questions” response letter from the FDA at the end of 2023 for the GRAS notice submitted by the company.

It’s important to note that because animal-free egg and dairy ingredients are genetic duplications of the animal-based formats, the same allergies and sensitivities exist for consumers and the FDA requires this disclosure.


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