By Professor Richard Newcomb, chief scientist at Plant & Food Research
The New Zealand food and beverage industry has an opportunity to create new and exciting products by exploring and incorporating fermentation.
Fermentation is the oldest form of biotechnology we have to harnesses the power of the microbe to add value to foods and beverages. Before refrigeration, fermentation was used to sterilise foods for storage. But it’s also been used to add flavour and texture to foods. For example, the CO2 produced through fermentation helps aerate bread during cooking.
With their unique flavours and textures, whole dishes or even cuisines have been created around fermented foods. Imagine Japanese cuisine without miso, or Korean without kimchi.
And, thanks to recently discovered health benefits, traditionally fermented products like sauerkraut and kombucha have experienced a revival. These foods are abundant with probiotics – ‘friendly’ bacteria that compete against harmful bacteria and stop them settling in the gut. This health trend is likely to continue as research explores the gut health and gut-brain connection.
In New Zealand, traditional fermentation forms a major part of our food industries – particularly in dairy and wine, where large-scale fermentation technologies are common. However, as demand for alternative proteins continue, particularly those with minimal ingredients, emerging fermentation technologies could charter new ground in developing novel products with taste, texture and health properties desired by consumers. This emerging industry, using fungi, algae, bacteria and microbes to create functional ingredients and proteins, may move quickly based on technological advances and the short life cycle of microbes.
One approach to using fermentation to create alternative proteins is to create functional ingredients that can emulate some of the textures and styles associated with animal proteins. Fermentation can create novel enzymes to modify taste and texture – for example fat encapsulation could create plant-based products that simulate the mouth-feel of meat. Companies like Perfect Day Foods and Impossible Foods have been using this approach to emulate animal proteins.
Another approach is to consume the whole microbe or cell, leveraging fermentation’s potential for rapid growth. The commercial product Quorn is created by fermenting fungi with only the smallest addition of egg white or potato protein. Likewise, Solar Foods, a Finnish start-up, uses fermentation to develop a complete protein made from CO2, air and renewable energy. Their ingredient, Solein, is being marketed as a sustainable protein boost for products like pasta and yoghurt.
The use of fermentation in the alternative protein industry is just beginning, with scientists globally exploring its potential to innovate new proteins and cultivated meats. For New Zealand it’s a question of whether there are opportunities for fermentation which could leverage our capabilities and expertise to create exciting and novel food ranges.
Professor Richard Newcomb is chief scientist at Plant & Food Research overseeing all aspects of science quality, strategic science, capability development and collaboration across the institute. He is also an honorary professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Auckland.