Fermentation: This Ancient Technique Is the Key to Our Plant-Based Future

We're going beyond sauerkraut and yogurt.

Fermentation is the opposite of a new technology; we’ve been using it to make food and drink products like beer and wine, yogurt, miso, and kimchi for thousands of years. But what’s very old is new again, as science is tapping into this ancient process to create many of the most modern animal-free food products—meat, dairy and egg substitutes—that are showing up on grocery shelves in increasing numbers every day.

The process of fermentation involves the reaction of a natural or added yeast or healthy bacteria with carbohydrates to create alcohol or acid. “This method unlocks a more complex flavor profile, and is the reason fermented foods have gut health benefits,” explains Mac Anderson, co-founder and chief commercial officer of Cleveland Kitchen, which sells many fermented products, including raw and unpasteurized sauerkraut and kimchi.

These products preserve the probiotic properties that arise during the fermentation process. Probiotics encourage good bacteria to thrive in the tiny microbiome that is your gut, and those microorganisms are no joke. “We are learning more and more about how the gut microbiome is connected to your overall body health, from the immune system to metabolism, to heart and brain health,” says Sharon Palmer, a registered dietitian and author of The Plant-Powered Diet


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The science backs her up. The study of gut bacteria is still fairly new, with much still to be explored, but the information we do have suggests that they can have significant impacts on not just your digestive health, but other bodily functions as well—even mental health. “Eating more fermented foods such as yogurt, pickled vegetables, and kefir can help boost these beneficial microbes,” Palmer adds.

Now, forward-thinking food scientists have discovered another benefit of fermentation: By tweaking the same processes that give us yogurt and beer, they can create a new generation of fake meats, eggs and dairy made to mimic many of your favorite animal-derived foods—yes, even bacon.

Well, why not just eat bacon, you ask? There are a lot of reasons to eat less animal-derived foods. Whether yours are ethical, environmental or medical, these animal-free alternatives help address all three.

Biomass Fermentation and Plant-Based Meat

Biomass fermentation is the new technique that Green Island, New York-based MyForest Foods uses to turn mycelium, the root structure of mushrooms, into a bacon substitute. Eben Bayer, co-founder and CEO, explains: “Imagine a large indoor vertical farm with lots of shelving that reaches the top of a 20-foot ceiling,” he says. “We fill the shelves with a proprietary soil blend, technically called substrate, made up of wood pellets from sawmills and crop byproducts like the husks of seeds that have been cooked and seeded with gourmet mushroom mycelium. Then, we replicate the elements of the forest inside this vertical farm: the breeze, the dew and the temperature.” The resulting growth is a series of fibers, only a few microns wide, that are similar to pork or beef cells. Joined together, they create giant slabs of mushroom root that are sliced into bacon-sized strips that, believe it or not, have a savory, smoky, umami, even meaty taste.

According to Paul Shapiro, CEO of The Better Meat Co., biomass fermentation of mycelium has some considerable advantages over the processes used by the plant-based meat analogs that currently reign supreme, like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat: “Most alt-meats are made from extruded plant protein isolates. This is a cool technology, but it's expensive and isn't a whole food,” he said. The fiber and fat are stripped out of the plant source material, creating just a protein isolate. Biomass fermentation, on the other hand, “creates an all-natural, whole food that in its unprocessed state has a meat-like texture,” Shapiro said. “We simply take a process that occurs in nature, wrap it in stainless steel, and facilitate it in a controlled environment.” 

Tyler Huggins, CEO and co-founder of Meati, another innovative, young company turning mushrooms into animal-free meat, concurs. Biomass fermentation, he said, “avoids the complex blending of a litany of ingredients that is common to many plant-based products … and therefore also naturally avoids higher levels of processing”—which is a big deal, considering one of the major critiques of alt-meat is that it’s “too processed.” 

Quorn, known for meat-free patties and nuggets you’ve probably seen in your grocery store’s freezer section, also put its money on biomass fermentation. "The unique way in which we create texture with our super-protein means we can offer a huge range of delicious meat-free food, from [crumbles] to deli slices to nuggets," says CEO Marco Bertacca. "Importantly, fermentation of fungi lends itself to production at significant scale, whilst maintaining a relatively benign footprint." Indeed, it’s an extremely efficient process (it can double its biomass in a matter of hours, according to Huggins) that results in a delicious product. 

Precision Fermentation and Plant-Based Eggs

But it’s not just meat substitutes that are benefiting from the new fermentation. Other companies are using another process, precision fermentation, to make animal-free dairy and even eggs. Precision fermentation isn’t new; it’s the same way that food and drug companies mass-cultivate the vast majority of cheese-making enzymes and medical insulin. “This new application,” says Irina Gerry, CMO of Change Foods, which makes cow-less dairy products, “makes it revolutionary.” (Brands like Remilk and Perfect Day use similar technology.) 

Precision fermentation is not unlike the process of brewing beer. Micro-organisms like yeast from fungi are encoded with the DNA of a protein found in dairy products, which are then fed sugar and left to ferment. The result is a protein identical to one found in traditional dairy, allowing manufacturers to make ice cream, cheese, and other creamy goods that taste like the stuff we know and love, but without lactose, without cholesterol, and without the participation of any cow. Gerry estimates that precision fermentation-created milk uses 100-times less land, 25-times less feedstock, 10-times less water, and 5-times less energy. 

Sure, we’re familiar with synthesized meat and dairy substitutes, but what about eggs? The EVERY Company and Onego Bio are two companies that are using precision fermentation to create chicken-less egg protein. Maija Itkonen, co-founder and CEO of Onego Bio, reports that this process “can provide the same nutritious ingredients that make our beloved foods fluffy, gooey, sticky and foamy, but decoupled from the animal agriculture system.”

What's Next For Fermentation?

Fermentation is poised to revolutionize what we eat. But it’ll take some time to get there. Although traditional fermented foods like miso and sourdough are commonplace, many of these newer products are not widely available yet. Hurdles related to scale, like producing enough volume and bringing down the price, will first need to be overcome. Some of the brightest culinary minds and food technologists are working hard to make these better-for-you and more sustainable foods a reality. So chances are it won’t be too long before we start seeing them pop up in stores and at the most cutting-edge restaurants—and that’s something to celebrate.

Cooking With Fermented Foods

In the meantime, cooking with fermented foods is a great way to boost your gut health and overall health, while getting better acquainted with the process that will soon revolutionize the production of alt-meat, vegan eggs, and more. If you’re eager to start cooking with fermented foods, check out these recipes below:

Sourdough Banana Bread

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This banana bread calls for a sourdough starter, which is basically just a live fermented culture of fresh flour and water.

Kimchi Cabbage Cakes 

Here's a tasty way to transform a head of cabbage into a satisfying meal: Shred and toss it with spicy chopped kimchi and some eggs to make crispy cakes.
Victor Protasio

Kimchi—fermented cabbage—is the star of these delicious, savory cakes, which are also made with shredded cabbage, scallions, eggs, and a generous splash of soy sauce.

Strawberry-Chia Breakfast Pudding

Strawberry-Chia Breakfast Pudding
Greg DuPree

This nutritious pudding combines yogurt and chia seeds with milk, macerated strawberries, and granola to yield a stellar, gut healthy, breakfast.

Roasted Eggplant With Miso and Sesame Seeds

Roasted Eggplant With Miso and Sesame Seeds
Antonis Achilleos

In this recipe, miso, a fermented soybean paste, coats eggplant rounds to give them a rich, slightly sweet flavor. Chili paste adds some heat, while toasted sesame seeds contribute crunch.

Tangy Broccoli Slaw

Broccoli Slaw Recipe
Andrew Purcell

For this recipe, you'll transform broccoli into a slaw and bathe it in a tart kefir-based dressing, which happens to be gut-friendly and aid digestion. Tangy dried cherries bring a hit of sweetness to each bite, while toasted sliced almonds draw on the umami notes in the roasted bits of broccoli.

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