Precision Fermentation: The Newest Player in the Alternative Protein Industry

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Precision fermentation. What is it and what products can you already find made this way? A look into fermented meat, fermented dairy, and more.

three ice cream cones being held by three different hands with a green background

Alternative proteins – including plant-based and cultivated (lab-grown) slaughter-free meat products have taken the food industry by storm.

But did you know that there’s a third player in the race? It’s called precision fermentation, and while it’s been used to make food additives, vitamins, and drugs (like insulin) for several decades, its application to alternative proteins is only just beginning.

What is Precision Fermentation?

Precision fermentation is a form of brewing. But instead of making bread or beer, it takes microflora – like bacteria, algae, or yeast – and genetically engineers it to make nutrients like fats or protein.

From here, these can be further processed into ingredients used to make the same animal products we’re used to, but without the animals. With millions of investor dollars behind them, companies are using it to make honey, collagen, egg whites, milk protein, lobster, and animal fats.

To clarify, foods produced this way do not contain genetically modified organisms – they’re just produced by them. This means they won’t need to be labeled as GMO, according to the FDA’s National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard, but it also means that they wouldn’t qualify for Non-GMO Project certification either.

Interestingly, these products could actually be considered vegan seeing as they don’t contain animal-derived ingredients. However, they would need to bear allergy warnings just like animal products. For instance, milk protein made using precision fermentation is still milk protein, which is still a top allergen.

How is it Being Used to Make Alternative Proteins?

Precision fermentation allows alt protein manufacturers to use the process of brewing to make:

  • specific proteins
  • fats
  • micronutrients
  • enzymes
  • flavor compounds, and
  • even pigments that are used to make animal-free animal products.

Let’s take a look at some of the products currently being made this way.

mason jar filled with milk with cookies stacked next to it on a wood table

Fermented Dairy

Makers of fermented dairy products are able to program microflora to produce cow whey protein, without any cows. With whey protein, they can then make the dairy products you’re used to, like ice cream, yogurt, cheese, and milk.

For example, Perfect Day is one of the main companies able to do this right now. In fact, they make cow whey protein and sell it to like-minded brands who use it to make the final products you can find in stores.

Some of these brands include:

New Culture is another brand making casein (another dairy protein) for cheese production, starting with mozzarella. Change Foods is also making proteins and fats for dairy products like cheese.

Fermented Meat and Egg Products

Companies that can make ingredients necessary to manufacture animal-free meat and egg products are creating things like gelatin, collagen, egg protein, and more using precision fermentation.

Here are some of the companies working on this:

Bond Pet Foods is even working to change the meat-heavy pet food industry with microbially-produced animal proteins.

Precision Fermentation vs. Cultivated Meat vs. Plant-Based Meat

The food system is on its way to a complete overhaul, and there are lots of new tech terms being thrown around. To be clear, precision fermentation is something totally different from cultivated meat and plant-based meat.

However, precision fermentation may be used to create some of the ingredients used in plant-based and cultivated meat products. For example, plant-based amino acids for flavoring plant-based meats, probiotics, vitamins, fermentation-derived fats for meat, dairy, and fish alternatives, and recombinant proteins, including growth factors for cultivated meat.

But to differentiate between the categories:

Cultivated meat is made by extracting cells from a living animal (no harm or slaughter involved), and growing and multiplying these using a bioreactor. To learn more about cultivated meat, see our post What is Cultivated Meat?

Plant-based meat is made using purely plant-derived ingredients, like legumes, soy, seitan, fruits and veggies, grains, nuts, and seeds.

Note that some companies are making”hybrid” products that use both plant-based and cultivated meat ingredients or even plant and conventional meat combinations.

Just read the ingredient label to see what’s up if you’re not sure because I have a feeling that things are gonna get way more confusing around here if you’re not really paying attention to what’s happening with alt proteins.

Final Thoughts

Every time I read something new about the alt-protein movement, I get more and more excited. This is absolutely the future, y’all, and it’s only just beginning.

Precision fermentation has been around for a long time for other uses, meaning that the technology is already well understood, even if it’s an up-and-coming food trend.

There’s rising consumer demand for animal-free products. There are also many reluctant meat lovers who wish their favorite animal products were better for the planet and animals.

Indeed, precision fermentation steps in at the opportune time to offer yet another way for humankind to make more ethical, environmentally-conscious food choices.