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Sugar’s role in future foods: microbial proteins

17/08/2023 By Ben Eastick in Featured Sugar chemistry

All our food systems are under pressure from the world’s growing population, limited land and climate change. Our traditional ways of feeding ourselves: growing crops, farming animals and fishing, struggle to meet our demands for protein. Microbial protein sources could be a sustainable and reliable alternative for the future. But what exactly are microbial protein sources, and what role does sugar play in encouraging wider adoption?

The protein-based foods of the future look set to include delicacies like industrial scale lab-grown meats, insects and arthropods and microbial proteins (MPs). These are macromolecules obtained from microorganisms such as bacteria, algae, and fungi. Also known as single-celled proteins (SCPs), the microbial foods of tomorrow are a far cry from the traditionally fermented microbial foods of the past. Eaten for millennia, around 3500 fermented foods are thought to exist today and include some of the most popular foods on the planet.

Algae seaweed in science experiments, laboratory research with a Group of Microbiologist Looking at a Lab-Grown Cultured Vegan Meat Sample in a Microscope. Medical Scientist Working on Plant-Based. medical biotechnology research laboratory using microscope

Algae growing under laboratory conditions, with biotechnologists evaluating the growth of cultured meat substitutes. Scaling up lab processes is a key challenge for commercialising microbial proteins.

Cheese, ham, yogurt and sourdough bread are all examples of traditional microbial foods in high demand by consumers all over the world. Without sugar—whether inherent in the food, like lactose in milk, or added as part of the fermentation process—our favourite microbial foods would not exist. In the same way, sugar plays an essential role in tomorrow’s equivalents. 

We eat with our eyes. What can be seen in a petridish will look even less appetising on our plates. Sugar provides colour and texture, as well as flavour.

What do foods of the future look like?

Microbial protein sources are on the increase in many cultures. In the western world, many of our vegan protein products have microbial origins. A familiar brand made from fungus protein (mycoprotein) contains the Fusarium venenatum fungus, where the culture is dried and mixed with egg as a binder, before being pressed into the various shapes you see on every big supermarket shelf in the UK.

A mass move away from ultra-processed foods and an increasingly health- and eco-conscious population mean that alternative foods and lifestyles are growing more popular. The power of microbial foods to balance our gut microbiomes (the communities of microbes that already live in our intestines), aid our digestion and address conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), is tangible, with multiple studies backing up the use of ‘probiotic’ foods and supplements.

Plant-based foods, such as these rosemary and onion vegan sausages, are now mature products, but have taken many years and multiple formulations to get right.

Producing animal protein like pork, beef and chicken uses huge amounts of water and land and puts carbon into our atmosphere. Because microbial proteins can be grown at scale to suit demand—in the same way that plant and insect-based proteins are—but at potential less cost to the environment, they hold real promise to replace meat at some point in the future.

Microbial foods are a well-established food source in many cultures

Humans have used bacteria, yeasts and moulds in food production since the Neolithic period—around 10,000 years BC—to not only preserve foods, but to improve the way they taste, look, smell and feel too. One study in 1995 found that in Central Europe, fermented food still represents one quarter to one third of all the food eaten. While bacteria are responsible for salami, pepperoni and dried ham, and turning milk into cheese and yogurt, yeasts have been used in brewing and breadmaking for thousands of years.

Almost every human culture on earth has its own range of foods made possible by microbial cultures. It’s difficult to think of German food without sauerkraut, Korean cuisine without kimchi or an Indian feast without dosa. Before electricity, preservation was the only way of storing food for leaner times, which ensured microbial foods a place in traditional diets the world over. Their inherent deliciousness and place at the heart of family mealtimes kept them in national cuisines long after the invention of fridges, chemical preservatives and vacuum packing.

Different countries and cultures have created their own foods full of microbes, such as Korean kimchi cabbage, beet sauerkraut and cabbage sauerkraut.

The microbial biotechnology of the past has a key role in feeding the population of tomorrow, which in 2050, will need 70% more food calories than in 2006. Microorganisms can help in two ways: one, by producing a direct food source, like algae or fungus (The well-known mycoprotein brand mentioned earlier is one example), and two, by being the actors that turn one food to turn it into another, like milk into cheese.

Single-celled proteins as animal protein and meat substitutes

Biotech startups are now growing fermented microbes on an industrial scale. Fermentation enables proteins to grow rapidly, doubling in size within hours, compared to the months or years it takes animals to do the same. And, if we replace only 20% of the meat we get from cows with microbially-fermented alternatives, we could save half the forests cleared to graze cattle, according to one study published by Nature.

However, pure microbial cell mass isn’t palatable for humans. The taste, texture and smell of microbial foods—without processing and flavouring—can’t currently rival a steak or burger, but research is being done to find out how breeding or engineering taste through genetically modifying the cultures could bring about the eating experience meat eaters crave.

Sugar’s role in microbial protein

As a powerful giver of texture and mouthfeel, sugar is indispensable to the food and beverage industry, with plant-based and alternative foods relying heavily on it to draw carnivores to their increasingly sophisticated products.

Sugar is already playing a large part in flavouring, texturising and colouring some mycoprotein-based meat alternatives. Natural, caramelised sugar not only gives products – including that mycoprotein brand mentioned above – a deeper, rounder flavour, but a chewy texture and an appealing golden-brown colour too.

Fine textured vegan steaks made from pea proteins with sugar to add that texture and mouthfeel associated with a fillet beefsteak. Sugar is a humectant, meaning it absorbs water, adding juiciness to the eating experience.

One method of growing fermented microbes to produce industrial-scale alternative protein uses sugar as part of a process that begins with a single teaspoon of bacteria in a bioreactor, fed with sugar. Only five hours later, the biomass is ready to be harvested. The resulting fermented protein will be sold as a protein booster to factories producing pet food, but research is afoot to investigate how to use the product in human-grade food.

Sugar’s role in the food and beverage industry is a lot bigger than sweetness. While plant- and insect-based food products already look set to replace some of the meat we eat, microbial foods are the new contender. Whatever future food wins the battle to take meat’s crown as the world’s new favourite protein, sugar will play a crucial part in winning the tastebuds and stomachs of consumers.

To learn more about our pure sugar products and how they can bring taste, texture, mouthfeel and other functional properties to your products, contact our Customer Services Team. For more sugar news and Ragus updates, keep browsing SUGARTALK and follow Ragus on LinkedIn.

Ben Eastick

A board member and co-leader of the business, Ben is responsible for our marketing strategy and its execution by the agency team he leads and is the guardian of our corporate brand vision. He also manages key customers and distributors.

In 2005, he took on the role of globally sourcing our ‘speciality sugars’. With his background in laboratory product testing and following three decades of supplier visits, his expertise means we get high quality, consistent and reliable raw materials from ethical sources.

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