Health & Wellness

Is Fungi Protein The Next Big Meat Alternative?

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These days, Meatless Monday has never tasted more meaty. With companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat serving up convincingly juicy burgers, breakfast sausage patties, bacon and more, plant-based substitutes have taken on a distinctly carnivorous taste profile.

But while many vegan and vegetarian companies rely on soy, wheat and pea protein to whip up plant-based meat mockups, it’s another source of protein that may be the future of the growing meatless trend – fungi protein (also known as mycoprotein).

If the first thing you think about is a portobello being served up on a bun, you probably haven’t gotten the complete story on what fungi protein is and what it can do for you and the planet. We’re going to fill you in on how it’s produced, its environmental impact and how it compares to other meat substitutes like soy and seitan.

Even if you’re a vegetarian already, you may be surprised at what you learn! Continue reading to learn more about fungi protein and if it is right for you.

What Is Fungi Protein?

White plastic spoons with mushroom powder on them

When you buy and prepare mushrooms from your local store, what you’re using is referred to as the fruiting body – the part of the mushroom that grows above ground. But did you know that mushrooms have an underground network of roots that extends in all directions below ground?

These roots, referred to as a mycelium, can take in sugars and nutrients from their environment and transform them into proteins through the process of fermentation. And because of the thread-like structure of these roots, the resulting product already has a consistency that’s similar to meat. 

Once harvested, the relatively flavorless protein is processed into vegetarian meat substitutes that imitate food products like chicken, bacon, beef burgers and more.  

Bianca Garcia, Registered Dietitian Nutritionalist at Health Canal, also adds, “ Fungi protein is great for vegetarians and vegans as a source of all essential amino acids; it has a great texture that is comparable to meat, can help control cholesterol levels.”

Environmental Impact

With growing concerns about the meat industry’s impact on the environment, the interest in fungi-based proteins has probably never been higher. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the livestock industry is responsible for 14.5 % of global greenhouse emissions and uses one-third of the world’s ice-free land

Add in concerns about water use and the effluent wastes produced by the meat industry. You can see why alternative protein sources are beginning to gain ground among people who are concerned not only about their personal well-being but that of the planet as well. 

One of the many advantages of fusarium is that it’s usually produced in large fermentation tanks and can be harvested in a few days. In that sense, it even has an advantage over soy, wheat and pea proteins that do require significantly more land, water and time to produce. 

As far as a sustainability factor, these high-protein microorganisms do not take a ton of resources to produce, unlike other food sources.

Nutritional and Health Benefits 

So, yes, fungi protein is far easier on the environment than animal protein. But let’s get down to the nitty-gritty and talk about what it can do for your body.

Fungi-protein Is a Complete Protein

As you probably already know, protein is made up of amino acids. And your body needs 20 different amino acids to function at its best. While it can produce some of these amino acids on its own, nine of them have to be consumed in foods. These 9 amino acids are referred to as “essential amino acids.”

And while not all vegetarian sources of protein are complete (beans, nuts and seitan, for example), mycoprotein contains all nine essential amino acids and is considered to be a complete whole food protein.  

Fungi-Protein is Bioavailable

To put it simply, the bioavailability of a protein refers to your body’s capacity to break it down and use it. And the good news is that studies have already proven that fungi protein is digestible and helps with muscle synthesis after being eaten. 

Related: What is Biohacking, and Should You Try It? [Complete Guide]

Fungi-Protein is Low in Cholesterol

Not everyone becomes a vegetarian to save animals or the planet. If you’re someone that’s turned to vegetarian sources of protein to lower your cholesterol, you’ll be happy to know that fungi protein is cholesterol-free. 

Not only that, but preliminary studies suggest that it may even help reduce cholesterol levels when eaten regularly. 

So it’s good for the planet, animals and you!

Fungi-Protein Is Rich in Fiber and Nutrients

If you’re looking to get more fiber into your diet, nutritional fungi protein is a great source because of its naturally occurring beta-glucan and prebiotic fiber. It is also rich in nutrients like zinc, B vitamins and vitamin D.

Dr. Virginia Blackwell of Dofeve.org also adds more insight into the nutritional elements of fungi protein. Blackwell says, “They are a powerful antioxidants responsible to prevent radicals to get to the embodiment and also lowers the danger to ailments for example of the heart. Additionally antioxidants prevents swelling of the body cells.”

Is There a Downside to Fungi-Protein?

Mushrooms growing in the wild with lacey tops

Although fungal protein has many positive benefits for you and the planet, it’s  important to note that it can be an allergen for a few people. Though symptoms are usually mild, they can be life-threatening in rare cases. 

If you think that you might be allergic to fungi protein, be sure to talk to your doctor about it.

It’s also important to remember that fungi protein is usually processed to make it taste like meat. And if it’s processed with a lot of sodium or fat, it may be no healthier than animal meat. So be sure to read labels before you buy!

People on a plant-based diet will also want to be aware that while some fungi protein is vegan, some of it contains small amounts of egg or milk protein. Again, be sure to read those food labels!

Related: The Beginner’s Guide to Mushroom Coffee [A Fungus Among Us]

How Does It Stack Up to Other Plant Proteins?

Of course, fungi protein is one of many other sources of vegetarian protein. In fact, traditional substitutes like tofu, tempeh and seitan are probably more well-known at this point. But for people with concerns about soy (found in tempeh and tofu) or gluten (found in seitan), mycoprotein could offer a more viable alternative.

Also, for people who are looking for a vegetarian protein that really imitates meat, fungi protein has one major advantage – its texture. Mycelia has a thread-like, branching structure that’s naturally more akin to meat.

On the other hand, plant-based proteins have to go through an additional process called extrusion to achieve a more meat-like structure. They can also have a bitter or chalky taste that needs to be masked with other ingredients, while fungi protein has a naturally neutral flavor.

In other words, creating meat imitations with fungi protein requires less processing which helps it to maintain nutrients and possibly makes it healthier because it requires fewer masking ingredients. But again, be sure to read those food labels as not all fungi-protein products are created equal. 

Why Haven’t I Heard of Fungi-Protein?

Vegetarian dish with rice and tofu and peppers

So here’s the big question. If fungi protein has so many advantages, why haven’t you heard of it? The short answer is because of patents. 

Fungi protein was actually approved for consumption back in the 1980s. But the patents for this fermentation process were held by a company called Marlow Foods for about 20 years. The company avoided calling it fungi-protein for marketing reasons and instead referred to it by its brand name – Quorn.

So if you’ve ever eaten a product called Quorn, you’ve been eating fungi protein! Or maybe you have seen Fynd cream cheese at your local grocery store that is made with fungi protein called fy protein!

The Future of Fungi-Protein

Although the patents on the fermentation process for fungi protein expired some time ago, it’s taken a while for other companies to pick up the mycoprotein torch. 

However, in the past few years, various startup companies have been paving the way for fungi protein to become a more popular vegetarian meat substitute. 

Chicago-based Nature’s Fynd has already released a few products and is exploring ways to ferment mycoprotein in shallow, heated trays, reducing its footprint even further.  

MycoTechnology of Colorado is exploring ways to grow fungi-protein on tropical fruit that would otherwise be wasted. The company is also fermenting pea protein with mycelia from shitake mushrooms to remove its bitter taste and make it more digestible.

And Swedish company Mycorena is planning to provide ingredients and technology to other companies looking to create their own meat substitutes made from fungi protein.

Will these startups achieve their goal and turn fungi protein into a household name? That remains to be seen. But considering the environmental and health benefits of mycoprotein and its naturally meat-like structure, it could significantly impact the way we eat as we move into the future.

In other words, supermarket shelves may be heading for a full-scale fungi invasion. The future of food is changing quickly in the protein market world. So you may want to start thinking about how you’d like your mycoprotein burger cooked, everybody! 

You might also be interested in: The 8 Best Mushroom Grow Kits For Your Home

Sherry De Alba

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