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A panel at the Institute of Food Technologists’ FIRST virtual event weighed the pros, cons, and future of biomanufactured food ingredients.
Biomanufactured ingredients are a reality of today’s food industry. On July 20 during the Institute of Food Technologists’ FIRST virtual event, a panel of experts weighed the pros, cons, and future of biomanufactured food ingredients.
The definition of biomanufacturing is broad and constantly evolving. In general, “Biomanufacturing is a type of manufacturing that utilizes biological systems (e.g., living microorganisms, resting cells, animal cells, plant cells, tissues, enzymes, or in vitro synthetic (enzymatic) systems) to produce commercially important biomolecules for use in the agricultural, food, material, energy, and pharmaceutical industries.”1 Companies leverage biomanufacturing practices in various ways, ranging from using tried-and-true chemicals and methods to improve ingredient yields from natural raw materials to growing nature-identical ingredients from the ground-up in a lab.
During the FIRST panel, representatives from two companies—one from Kalsec Inc. (Kalamazoo, MI), a supplier of ingredients and natural colors, and one from Aleph Farms (Israel), a cultured-meat company—compared the performance, cost, scale-up potential, and acceptability of biomanufactured ingredients with their conventional (either natural or synthetic) counterparts.
In the case of natural food colors, said panelist Deepti Dabas, Kalsec’s principal scientist for color innovation, Kalsec employs the use of “simple” and “clean” chemistry techniques to better extract pigments from raw-material sources, whether by using solvents or enzymes. The company defines this as biomanufacturing.
At the more novel end of biomanufacturing, David Kraus, Alpha Farms’ senior food scientist, described how his company is using non-GMO cells taken from live cows (which are not killed during the process) to grow “cultured” meat. “We take cells from the cow, and we grow them, and we actually mirror the process of growth of the cells,” Kraus explained, noting that the resulting meat still has the same protein, myoglobin, and collagen content as conventional beef.
The benefits of biomanufacturing vary. In the natural colors industry, said Dabas, using solvents allows the company to extract pigment from raw materials more efficiently. And when comparing the process of growing cultured meat to traditional meat production, producing cultured meat in a lab saves on natural resources and yields more sterile production, said Kraus. It’s no secret feeding the world’s growing population while grappling with resource constraints will be a growing global struggle in the years ahead, and methods like biomanufacturing will become an increasingly important solution.
Biomanufacturing also alleviates the complexities of sourcing raw materials. Dabas explained how, when sourcing raw materials for natural colors, Kalsec must consider that some crops used as raw material for natural colors grow most efficiently only in certain countries; thus, the location of growers, as well as diversification strategies to safeguard against natural supply disruptions, are necessary considerations that must be taken. By contrast, said Kraus, producing cultured meat in a lab means that Aleph Farms should be able to grow its meat in diverse locations as well as locally near its customers.
On a performance basis, whether there are differences between biomanufactured ingredients and natural and/or synthetic ingredients depends on who you’re talking to. In the case of natural colors, said Dabas, there can sometimes be performance differences between natural colors and synthetic counterparts, such as stability during storage and transport. For those most part, however, she said her company uses its expertise to select the right natural color solution for the right application to maximize performance and stability.
In the case of cultured meat, said Kraus, “if we are growing cells taken from cows, they have basically the same ingredients, the same proteins, the same molecules, and they react very similarly when they’re cooked or when they’re tasted…” He said the company uses tasting panels, texture analyzers, and color analyzers to make sure that the resulting product is comparable to the alternative.
He continued: “What we are doing is establishing a new category of meat products imbued in its own culture, and a new world of meaty experiences. We envision that within 5 to 10 years, we will have two categories of meat available: one is slaughter-based, and one is slaughter-free…Maybe we can compare it to the wine industry where we have white wines and red wines, which are not exactly the same, and every kind has its own uses and attributes….”
Scaling up a biomanufacturing operation takes time for a newer venture like Aleph Farms’. Kraus said the company’s plan is to launch its first product at the end of 2022. In terms of product cost, he said, “we are expecting to reach parity and price to conventional meat around 2025.” Part of this process will involve long-term agreements with suppliers of ingredients for the growth medium, etc.
Biomanufacturing imparts cost benefits for natural colors as well, said Dabas. “If we depend on agriculture, the price is going to be two to five times higher, but if we can [leverage]…techniques like fermentation…or even enzymes in the future, we can bring down the price,” she said.
There are also the factors of the safety, consumer acceptance, and regulatory acceptance of biomanufactured ingredients. Regarding natural colors, said Dabas, global regulators already have systems in place for evaluating the safety of colors, and that those colors already approved on the market are quite safe, whether natural or synthetic. The hope, she said, is that there will be a more harmonized acceptance of colors globally.
Regarding cultivated meat, said Kraus, “the cultivated-meat industry is in the first phase…[so] from a regulatory point of view, it doesn’t exist yet.” He said Aleph Farms is among those working closely with regulators to build out a new category, keeping benefits in mind such as the fact that the production of cultured meat is “easier to control and easier to do when we are working in sterile conditions, and we do not have most of the possible infections or contaminations…”
For something as new as cultured meat, the level of consumer acceptance remains to be seen, although Kraus said he believes consumers simply want food products they feel are healthy, cost-effective, and safe. At the end of the day, he said, if a meat product is labeled as being bioproduced, he said he’s not sure it would “make a very big change” in the mind of the consumer.
And in the case of natural colors that are biomanufactured, as has always been the case the choice comes down to consumer preference for natural or synthetic sources.
Zhang YHP et al. “Biomanufacturing: history and perspective.” Journal of Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology, vol. 44, no. 4-5 (May 1, 2017): 773-784.