A process that converts fungus into food which people can eat has potential for easing global food shortages.
Commercial production of a protein-rich fungal product intended for human consumption is about to be launched by a partnership linking Rank Hovis McDougal , Europe's fourth-biggest food manufacturer, and the British government's National Enterprise Board.
The relatively inexpensive carbohydrate conversion process on which the new food technology is based offers enormous profit potentials in the face of the steady rise in the real price of food. Its potential for overcoming global food shortages is considered enormous.
The process bypasses most problems that have hitherto bedeviled the single-cell protein industry, which already produces animal foodstuffs. The new product, passed for human consumption after exhaustive testing by the Ministry of Agriculture here, is a microscopic fungus of the family that includes mushrooms and truffles. It has an acceptable mushroomy flavor, and its filament-like texture can be turned into convincing imitations of meat or fish. It is produced from a feedstock of the syrup of food-grade starch.
Limited test marketing of the product has proved encouraging. It has been developed at the High Wycombe laboratories of the food company in a program costing up to (STR)15 million ($25 million) since the mid-1960s. The partnership with the Enterprise Board is expected to lead to an initial production of up to 50,000 tons a year.
The first patents for the manufacture of synthetic foods were issued back at the turn of the century - but the industry took off only after the development in the 1950s of crude oil-based, single-cell proteins for animal feed. The product rivals such traditional protein sources as soy meal and fish meal. But this oil-based product is not suitable for human consumption, partly because its high nucleic acid content is harmful to man and partly because of the possibility that residues of the culture-medium in the petroleum-derived food product may, according to medical researchers, prove carcinogenic in the long term.
Textured vegetable proteins, largely derived from soybean and interlaid with a binder as well as vitamins and coloring and flavoring agents, are already being used on a large scale in minced meat extenders, sausages, pies, and ready-to-eat products.
These defattened flours have overcome widespread cultural prejudices against the novel high-protein products in many countries. They carry no association with bacteria or disease, but lack enough of the essential amino acids, which determine the quality of protein. Therefore, they must remain a supplement to, rather than the basis of, balanced diets.
By contrast, the new edible fungus product contains all the amino acids required for healthy growth. It is easier to harvest through continuous fermentation than yeast or bacteria, and its nucleic acid level is about half the maximum permitted in Britain. Derived from starch and potatoes, it evokes no concern over cancer, and its raw materials are free of the price fluctuations affecting the petroleum industry.
Great commercial secrecy surrounds the new food technology.
But its potential is reflected by a (STR)5 million investment by the cautious Enterprise Board. The process is likely to attract much competitive research and eventually be made available to manufacturing interests in many countries under license.