Make way for a new vegan protein on the menu

Make way for a new vegan protein on the menu

Fancy some dairy-free protein rich ice cream with a microbial twist? Finnish startup Solar Foods‘ novel alternative protein, Solein, is now on the menu of a restaurant in Singapore where it’s been blended into a custom (vegan) chocolate gelato.

It’s the first time the startup’s microbial protein has been available for the general public to tuck into. And, indeed, it’s just one restaurant (Fico) that’s put it on the menu so far. But this is a baby step toward what the startup hopes will blossom into a wide range of food industry partnerships in the coming years as it works towards bringing commercial scale production on stream.

Solar Foods gained its debut regulatory clearance to sell Solein in Singapore last September. It has also filed for clearances for human consumption of its novel protein in other markers, including the US and Europe. But last month it announced a strategic alliance with Japan’s Ajinomoto, a food company that will be developing products that use Solein. So Asia is where developments look to be moving fastest so far.

As we’ve reported before, the Finns behind Solar Foods are tackling the huge yet under-addressed, elephant-in-the-room problem of how to make humanity’s food system sustainable.

Bottom line: If we’re going to avoid climate disaster then cutting emissions generated by farming is critical. And it’s industrial animal farming — for meat and dairy — that is particularly problematic for the environment given how much land and water is required to yield these animal-derived proteins.

This is why, in recent years, all sorts of plant-based alternative protein makers have sprung up, seeking to respond to the sustainability challenge by producing high quality vegan faux meats that can still tickle the taste buds of meat-eaters.

Solar Foods is a little different vs the average alt protein maker. Firstly it’s not seeking to sell any food direct to consumers itself. Rather It’s aiming to add another string to the bow of vegan food producers since its alternative protein doesn’t involve any agriculture at all. So there’s no photosynthesis attached to these nutrient-dense calories.

Zooming out, reduced dependence on land for human food production opens up the prospect of repurposing large amounts of farmland for different uses that fight climate change and combat biodiversity loss, such as rewilding schemes, soils restoration, tree planting and allowing the return of other carbon-capturing natural habitats.

Additionally, Solein being neither land nor weather dependent makes it a very reliable source of edible protein — at least provided you have access to (affordable) electricity and a supply of clean water. Hence why the startup touts it as “the world’s most sustainable protein”. (Albeit, the source of electricity involved in Solein’s production may still put some wrinkles in the sustainability picture, unless or until it’s 100% renewable energy powering every Solar Foods bioreactor.)

The startup likens the process for producing Solein to brewing or wine making — but with just three ‘ingredients’ needed: Air, water and electricity (plus the aforementioned bioreactor where the fermentation process takes place).

The taste of the harvested, dried and powdered protein is described as being mild and neutral. Solar Foods says this makes it suitable for being incorporated into a variety of foodstuffs, both sweet and savoury. In the event, the first publicly available dish is a dessert: The aforementioned vegan gelato that packs a protein punch.

The gelato is protein rich because Solein is 65%-70% protein — which makes it considerably richer in protein than milk, the traditional base ingredient for gelato (although some traditional gelato may also use egg yolk).

We’ve asked for details of the macronutrient breakdown of the Solein-based gelato and how it stacks up vs traditional gelato. And will add the info if we get it.

Per Solar Foods, the macronutrient composition of Solein cells is very similar to that of dried soy or algae. It also provides iron and B vitamins. So its pitch for the novel ingredient is that it’s rich in the types of nutrients humans often source from animal-derived foodstuffs.

Solein’s sunny upside, however, is this nutrient dense protein does not come chain-linked to the vast environmental, ethical and even health problems attached to industrial animal farming — whether it’s the deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest to plant soya to feed beef cattle; the horror of the average slaughterhouse; or the risk that habitat destruction could lead to more viruses making the zoonotic leap from wild animals to humans as wildlife is forced into increasingly closer proximity with people.

Tackling the climate crisis is also of course an absolute economic imperative since the costs of not addressing global warming will be unimaginably greater than if we make the necessary investments to avoid global heating disaster.

While the world keeps breaking temperature records, the good news is alternative protein sources do already exist and companies like Solar Foods are working on scaling production.

Demand, however, is a harder nut to crack. But, well, who can resist chocolate ice cream?

The Solein-based gelato now on the menu at Fico was developed by its chef partner, Mirko Febbrile.

“Inspired by the properties of Solein, with its mild aroma and notes of umami that hint at nuttiness and creaminess, chef Mirko explored pairing Solein with an indulgent chocolate flavour to elevate the familiar tastes,” Solar Foods said in a press release.

While when it’s incorporated as an ingredient Solein can add a distinctive yellow-orange color to foods, owning to the betacarotene it naturally contains, Febbrile‘s decision to pair it with chocolate for this Solein Chocolate Gelato means there’s no visual sign it’s in the dish.

As for the taste, we haven’t had a chance to try it, sadly, but judging by the rich chocolate color you’ll probably struggle to distinguish any subtle microbe-enhanced notes underlying the familiar chocolate gelato taste bomb. But we suspect that’ll make this very novel alt protein an easier sell.

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