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James Petrie, CEO, Nourish Ingredients
James Petrie, CEO, Nourish Ingredients

🎥Fats from fermentation: Chewing the designer fat with Nourish Ingredients

May 16, 2024

The race is on to develop ‘designer’ fats for the next generation of food products. But will fats & oils produced by microbes in fermentation tanks ever be a cost-effective proposition?

The answer, says Australian startup Nourish Ingredients, is that it depends. Attempting to produce a drop-in replacement for a commodity fat such as palm oil using microbial fermentation clearly makes no economic sense right now, says cofounder James Petrie. But if you can produce high-potency molecules that can be used at sub-1% inclusion rates to dramatically transform the flavor and cooking experience of a plant-based burger, for example, the equation is quite different.

Nourish Ingredients’ first two ingredients are Tastilux, which can deliver an “authentic animal taste, aroma and natural cooking reactions” at very low inclusion rates in alt meat; and Creamilux, a lipid that “recreates the rich, creamy mouthfeel, taste and emulsification properties of dairy fat.”

AgFunderNews (AFN) caught up with Petrie (JP) at the SynBioBeta conference in San Jose to chew the proverbial fat…

In our conversation, we covered:

AFN: Where does it make sense to make fats from microbes?

JP: There are some fats and oils in meat and dairy that are really signature that you associate with a well-cooked piece of meat or a dairy product. What we do at Nourish Ingredients is try and ignore all the boring fats which you could otherwise get from plants and focus on the really potent and important molecules we can deliver via fermentation.

Our fats are used at sub 1% inclusion rates. And I’d advise anyone at the start of their journey to look very carefully at the target molecules you’re making because the temptation is to come in and say we want to do a drop-in [1:1 replacement for an existing fat], because that’s easiest for the industry to adopt.

The problem with that is that only a small proportion of animal fat is actually interesting and provides that signature taste. So if you make a drop in [replacement for animal fat], 80% of what you’re producing could readily be substituted by a plant. And you don’t want to be competing with plants if you’re in precision fermentation, because they’re always going to be cheaper.

AFN: Isn’t the downstream processing part pretty costly if you’re making fat from microbes?

JP: My initial thought was that we need to isolate our fat [from the host microorganism] and Anna, the CTO at Nourish Ingredients, said, ‘Well, let’s try a crude liquid extract first,’ which worked really well. And then she said, ‘Let’s just try [harvesting] the whole cell,’ and I said, ‘Don’t be silly, that’s going to taste terrible,’ but it worked even better. So that is a good lesson as you look at not only how do you make your target molecule, but how do you do the downstream processing in the most efficient way? If you can cut out any steps, it’s going to be much cheaper.

AFB: Are you genetically engineering your microbes?

JP: Tastilux [Nourish Ingredients’ animal-like fat] is a fungal strain which naturally produces the sorts of lipids that we are after. But for Creamilux [Nourish Ingredients’ dairy-like fat] we’re using synthetic biology, and we have many strains going through the pipeline to try and build exactly the right types of molecules.

We think of ourselves as tech agnostic, so we’re also tinkering with crops, because if you can make a commodity scale oil via a crop, then the COGS [cost of goods] are unbeatable.

AFN: Can you put microbial fats in context vs other ‘next gen’ fats?

JP:  I’m personally very excited about the future of cell ag, but I think especially for something like fat, where 80-90% of the product is boring and can be substituted with a plant oil, it’s [cultivating animal cells in bioreactors] not a sensible use of that technology because it is so expensive.

But oleogels and supporting technologies are fascinating and I think that there’s a really strong overlap between what we’re doing—which is concentrating on building the right molecule—and what some other companies are doing around how you best deliver fats and oils into foods.

AFN: What’s the regulatory pathway for Nourish products?

JP:  For some products, we have no regulatory hurdles; they can just be put into the market now because they’re via existing enzymatic or chemical processes. Others like our synthetic biology strains are full-on GMO and are at other end of the spectrum. Tastilux is somewhere in the middle as it is not genetically modified but it may be considered a novel food in some jurisdictions.

AFN: What’s your plan for scaling up manufacturing?

JP: We have our R&D in Australia and a pilot facility in Singapore that lets us do meaningful quantities for our partners to use in internal testing. For commercial scale production, we’ve already identified partners who can do that for us. But we don’t need huge bioreactors as our ingredients are used at a very low inclusion rate, so we’ve got relatively low-volume fermentation from co-manufacturers, and we then take that material and do some critical value-add steps.

How challenging has it been to fund the business?

JP: We’ve raised about US$40 million, but it is very challenging in the current environment, especially in the alternative protein space, which is getting absolutely hammered. And frankly, that might be appropriate because I think it was so overheated… that it was probably unhealthy for the market.

What we’re seeing now is a pullback, both on the investment but also on the way in which companies are spending and the approach that they’re taking towards being more collaborative with others and I think that this is a healthy shift.

Fats… the next generation

Nourish is one of a growing number of startups using microbial fermentation to make tailored fats including Yali BioMelt&MarbleÄIO, c16 BioCirceSeminal BioNoPalm Ingredients, Zero Acre Farms and Clean Food Group.

Other startups are making cell-cultured fat by growing animal fat cells in a bioreactor (Hoxton Farms, Mission Barns​​, Believer Meats);​ while some are playing around with the structure of plant oils through emulsions (Lypid), oleogels (ShiruMotif FoodWorks), and oil structuring technology (Fattastic).

Further reading:

🎥Hoxton Farms tackles fat, the final frontier for alt meat

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