Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Al Gore are among some of the big names backing Nature’s Fynd, an up-and-coming fungi-based brand with a unique story. The Chicago-based start-up develops fungi-based burgers, cheeses and chicken nuggets – so how does it differ from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods? Its products are derived from a fermented volcanic microbe found at Yellowstone National Park.
Before co-founding Nature’s Fynd (originally called Sustainable Bioproducts) in 2012, Mark Kozubal researched a microbe from volcanic hot springs in Yellowstone National Park called Fusarium strain flavolapis. Along with a team of scientists, Kozubel fermented the microbe into a protein-rich substance and dubbed it “Fy.” While many faux meats tend to use soy, pea and other plant-based proteins, Fy is the foundation of Nature’s Fynd products.
The company claims the microbe-derived protein is packed with all 20 amino acids, while being free of cholesterol and trans fats. Fy also contains 50 percent more protein than tofu and has a fraction of the fat of ground beef. In terms of sustainability, Nature’s Fynd says Fy uses 99 percent less land than beef production, 99 percent fewer greenhouse gasses and 87 percent less water.
But is it safe to eat? The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says yes. Late last month, Nature’s Fynd received a “no questions” letter from the FDA in response to its application for its alternative protein ingredient. With a generally recognized as safe (GRAS) status, Fy can officially be sold in food products. The company aims to release its products, including meatless breakfast patties and dairy-free cream cheese, later this year.
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Of course, the competition will be hefty. The COVID-19 pandemic boosted plant-based meat sales by 264 percent by May 2020 and momentum hasn’t slowed down for these types of alternative proteins. Not to mention new entrants to the US market, such Brazil’s Future Farm, will only intensify the competition and saturate the market further. But Nature’s Fynd is confident that it will disrupt the space with its fermented products.
For millennia, fermentation has been a key process used in making a variety of food products like bread, cheese, beer and wine. Despite this, Nature’s Fynd has to catch up if it wants to be a main competitor in the alt meat market. Quorn, a UK-based brand founded in 1985, has been offering the American market its vast variety of fungi-based meat products since 2002. In 2015, it was acquired by Philippine food giant Monde Nissin for about $830 million.
Nature’s Fynd won’t be the first of its kind, nor the last. Israel-based Redefine Meat, which 3D-prints “alt-steaks,” and California-based Perfect Day, which also uses 3D printing and fermentation, are among the other companies taking advantage of the demand for alt meat. Nature’s Fynd is likely banking on the novelty of Fy and the connection to Yellowstone National Park to set itself apart. Time will tell whether those aspects will be enough.
However, Gates, Bezos and Gore seem to think so, with the company raising $158 million from them and other investors. With that investment, in a symbolic move representing the shift away from traditional meat, Nature’s Fynd is currently building a 35,000-square-foot factory at Chicago’s former Union Stockyards, which was a focal point for the meatpacking industry in the 20th century.
“The challenge for this and future generations is to learn to do more with less,” said Thomas Jonas, co-founder and CEO of Nature’s Fynd, in an interview with CNBC. “Because with eight billion people, the Earth is not getting any bigger, its resources are dwindling and climate change is making it even more difficult to find land to grow crops to feed animals. The math just doesn’t work. So, the whole goal of our new protein system is to increase the efficiency of the complete protein chain.”
Though the environmental sentiment is there, a massive part of the effort relies on consumers. Will a large enough number of people be willing to cross over to the side of alt meats and potentially overcome taste and texture barriers? Nature’s Fynd certainly hopes so, and it is doing everything in its power to convince potential consumers that animal-based meat will soon be a thing of the past.