Forget meat: Fungi-based protein to take over

Dasha Shvaikovskaya
5 min read

Since the early days, fungi have been recognized by humans for their valuable medicinal, culinary and nutritional properties. Praised by the ancient Greeks and Romans and being called the “elixir of life” in China, fungi-based protein is still perceived highly today – especially during Veganuary.

With more than half a million people from over 200 countries joining Veganuary in 2021 (1), retailers around the globe are rushing to get the newest vegan launches ready. Some of the vegan proteins like soy, pea or wheat protein, have long been recognized by the growing plant-based community.

Other non-meat protein alternatives are just gaining popularity now, and consumers are constantly looking for novel ways to maintain an adequate protein intake while not compromising the taste, and get additional benefits from the vegan products. One of such curious examples is mycoprotein – a great option for having a high-protein, cholesterol-free and fiber-rich alternative protein bite with multiple additional health benefits.

What is Mycoprotein? 

Mycoprotein is a type of plant protein made of Usarium venenatum, a naturally occurring fungus. It was discovered in the UK during the “green revolution” – a fifty-year long quest to find a new, sustainable protein source that could convert starch into protein via fermentation (2).

After testing over 3000 soil organisms, scientists were able to identify a filamentous microfungus that yielded a valuable food-grade protein. Further research and development have led to commercial scale production in a multi-step industrial fermentation process, in which glucose from roasted barley malt and nitrogen from ammonia are used as nutrients for fungal growth. 

A nutritious bite

Meat-like chewy and porous texture and high protein amount (11g/100g) make mycoprotein a good option for the first month of “meatless living” (Table 1). The “quality” of mycoprotein is also remarkable: the total protein contains 41% essential amino acids (the ones that the human body is incapable of generating from other metabolites), which is higher than those of most other commonly consumed plant-based proteins. Mycoprotein also showed great anabolic potential in a dose-response study (3), indicating that it may be a favorable source of dietary protein to stimulate muscle growth.

In addition to scoring high for macronutrients like protein and dietary fiber, mycoprotein is also low in saturated fat (important for keeping blood cholesterol in check), and rich in essential microelements like zinc and selenium. A powerhouse of nutrients? Mycoprotein sure is!

Table 1. Nutritional Composition of Mycoprotein.

A safeguard of global food supply?

The nutritional value of mycoprotein is not only good for a person, but could play an important role on a global stage of malnutrition. Researchers at the University of Cambridge say our future global food supply cannot be safeguarded by traditional approaches to improving food production, thus, global malnutrition could be eradicated by farming foods including mycoprotein (4).

By dry weight, mycoprotein constitutes approximately 45% protein and 25% fiber. In the US, where less than 5% of the population is meeting the adequate dietary fiber intake requirements (5), plant foods like mycoprotein are becoming even a more important source of this macronutrient. Moreover, ⅔ of naturally occurring fibers in mycoprotein are β-glucans, which have been demonstrated to positively influence the metabolism of fats in the human body (6).

A long-term study showed that mycoprotein consumers had a higher intake of dietary fibre (+22·18 %), Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) score (+23·33 %) and HDI (+8·89 %) and lower BMI (-4·77 %) versus non-consumers. There was an association between mycoprotein consumers and diet quality scores, high fibre, total and food energy, but low energy density intakes. Consumers also were negatively associated with fasting blood glucose and glycated HbA1c (7).

The bottom line

As global demand for alternative protein sources surged over the past century, the discovery of mycoprotein has shown a promising potential for providing a sustainable and nutritious food-grade protein source. With many health benefits of mushrooms that are already known, mycoprotein may also be a great option in fighting malnutrition.