How precision ingredients can win over picky eaters and save the planet

Julian Lewis

July 20, 2022

Plant-based foods are exploding in popularity. Once seen as a niche market segment, 62 percent of U.S. households bought a record $7.4 billion in meat, dairy, and egg alternatives in 2021. And more major brands seem to enter the space every day.

This shift couldn’t come at a better time. Climate change, war, pandemic, and other global shocks threaten the resilience of our food system and cause food prices to soar. Dollar for dollar, plant-based foods lead to far greater cuts in climate-heating emissions than other green investments — all while helping to ensure an affordable and plentiful food supply.

But even as some meat and milk analogs break into the mainstream, two barriers prevent more widespread adoption of plant-based food: taste and performance.

Deliciousness saves the world
The world is curious about plant-based foods, with as many as 80 percent of consumers saying they have tried or are willing to try plant-based meats. Burger King, Taco Bell, and McDonald’s are just a few of the places where plant-based burgers have found a measure of popular success. But research shows that current offerings often disappoint. Over 40 percent of Americans say they dislike the taste of plant-based foods, and 70 percent of those people say they would increase purchases if taste improved.

“We have a unique moment in history when deliciousness can actually help save the planet,” says Jason Voogt, Ph.D., Shiru’s VP of Product. “If curious, well-meaning people are disappointed with their first plant-based food experiences, we may have a hard time winning them back, if ever.”

The upshot: Plant-based foods will not thrive unless consumers enjoy eating and cooking with them. Plant-centered diets may be better for health and the planet, but only the most dedicated consumers will tolerate mediocre alternatives for ethics alone. To win people over and make a meaningful change in our food system, plant-based food producers need to create foods with all the flavor, texture, and mouthfeel of animal-based options — before the novelty wears off.

Giving eaters what they want
Why is this so hard? The challenge is that food companies have a limited toolkit when it comes to creating more flavorful and enjoyable plant-based foods. Though there are about 30,000 edible plants worldwide, we get 60 percent of our calories from just four crops. There are undoubtedly amazing ingredient combinations to be discovered in the natural world that could provide a better eating or cooking experience, but companies don’t have time for a trial-and-error approach to finding them.

At Shiru, we are working to meet this challenge by creating a new way to discover nature-based ingredients that achieve the desired performance in plant-based foods—without sacrificing nutrition or taste, and in an efficient, targeted manner. We do this with our patent-pending discovery platform, FlourishTM, which combines machine learningbioinformaticsprecision fermentation, and high-throughput testing to search and evaluate the food performance of hundreds of millions of naturally-occurring proteins. Many of our techniques are used in biopharma or natural language processing. Shiru is pioneering the use of these tools in the food industry.

The need to improve the sustainability of our food system by making plant-based foods more delicious is what motivates us. But what truly excites us is the opportunity to reimagine how we make food altogether. Our database contains hundreds of millions of proteins from plants, fungi, and algae, and most of those proteins have never been considered as ingredients before. It’s a wealth of untapped potential. With the matchmaking ability of Flourish to find proteins that fit specific functional profiles, we can not only replace unsustainable ingredients with plant-based substitutes—we can discover new ingredients that make our favorite foods even tastier than those we use today.

Rethinking the egg
Take eggs as an example. They’ve been in our food supply for thousands of years, so we’re accustomed to their use as a standard baking ingredient. But eggs are not magic, and maybe not even the best option for giving structure and leavening to baked goods; it’s just what we’re used to. What if there’s a better ingredient found in nature that can be produced sustainably and reliably and would make for more moist cakes and more decadent pastries, without the use of chickens?

These are the types of questions that we can answer with Flourish, because of the technology that powers the platform. We’re able to explore and evaluate naturally-occurring proteins based on their performance as food ingredients, unlocking a future where we can match the exact desired characteristics of a given food with the perfect ingredient. Moreover, producing ingredients using precision fermentation is far less resource-intensive than conventional methods, such as raising animals for food use. In a world where 77 percent of global farmland is used to feed livestock, this is another way Shiru aims to help shrink the environmental footprint of our food systems.

One way we’re already working to scale innovation today is by partnering with leading nature-based ingredient solutions company CP Kelco to discover and develop novel replacements for methylcellulose. Partnerships with leading food companies will allow us to accelerate innovation in the plant-based food industry.

A matter of taste
The movement toward more environmentally conscious eating shows no signs of slowing. But true transformation will only occur when people and producers choose plant-based foods simply because they taste and perform better. At Shiru, we’re realizing this vision by discovering more sustainable, nutritious, and delicious food ingredients.

Says Voogt: “If we can win over the most discriminating tasters, it’s a win for the planet.”

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