That was the opinion put forward by experts during a panel discussion at the Future of Nutrition Summit, part of Food Ingredients Europe 2023.
Led by Ruben Smouter, senior consultant at Bright Green Partners, the panel explored the opportunities and complexities associated with precision fermentation, looking specifically at its role in the production of alternative proteins.
Precision fermentation: A ‘game-changer’ for alternative proteins
Precision fermentation – a technology that uses microbes, microalgae, or yeast to produce molecules that are analogous to those found in animal products – was described by Smouter as “a real game-changer” for the alternative protein industry.
Stephan van Sint Fiet, CEO of Vivici, a Dutch precision fermentation dairy startup, agreed that it was a “great technology”, adding that he hoped it would be “one of the technologies that helps us get to sustainable protein”.
He explained: “It's a mature technology. It's been around for many, many decades. A lot of things, including proteins and enzymes, are made by fermentation today. And really, the novelty here is not so much the fermentation part; it’s the fact that we're now focusing on food proteins or on macronutrients.”
He compared the situation to the energy transition where “as you move away from fossil fuels, you got a mix of solutions”, whether that was wind, solar, or water.
“I think precision fermentation will be in the mix,” he said. “It won't be the only technology out there, but it will certainly be one of [them].”
Precision fermentation, formulation, and consumer education
Dr Anastasia Krivoruchko, co-founder and CEO of Melt&Marble, a B2B startup that uses precision fermentation to produce designer fats, agreed that it was an exciting technology with huge potential.
However, it does not come without its challenges, she warned.
“It is definitely challenging in terms of, first of all, getting to a process that is robust enough to be cheap, but then also scaling it up and also having access to production infrastructure,” she said. “It is something that takes time to get right.”
Meanwhile, Dr Heike Steiling, vice-president of R&D and head of Nestlé Product Technology Centers Dairy, pointed to the complexities associated with formulation, using beta-lactoglobulin as an example.
“Of course, there are still bottlenecks,” she said. “If you believe you have beta-lactoglobulin and you can easily just use it to reformulate milk, it is not so straightforward, because we have thousands of proteins in milk. They all play a functional role; they also play a bioactive role.”
Specifically, the diversity of proteins produced via precision fermentation was not the same, she said, adding: “We are not yet there on replacing milk fats, for instance – there's still a long way to go.”
It was crucial also to understand how to educate consumers on precision fermentation as a source of sustainable, good-quality protein, she said.
“It's not an easy black-and-white answer but I think as part of R&D, it's for us very important to pivot, to see what's out there, to experiment – and that's what we are committed to do because at the end, we need to have a portfolio [with good-tasting] products but which also plays a role in a sustainable future,” she added.
Precision fermentation industry’s main challenge lies in marketing, not technology
Van Sint Fiet, who has worked for corporates as well as startups, said the major challenge for precision fermentation companies was to ensure professionalisation throughout the value chain.
“It's a really steep learning curve. It's a long journey,” he said. “You start in the lab and you start producing microgram quantities or milligram quantities of your ingredient, then you have to go through scale-up, through regulatory, through manufacturing, and then you have to learn how to run a successful ingredients business or B2C business.”
He argued that the main challenge for these companies lay not with technology, but with marketing.
“It's about telling the story to the consumer, creating great brands that people want to buy – so to understand, hey, we are actually making sustainably produced ethically sourced ingredients that can turn the products you love into a more sustainable product version of what you already like, or alternatives thereof… not just mimicry,” he said.
He added: “I think that's really where we need to flip the switch and start not thinking like biotech companies, but we need [to think like] food companies.”