When asked about fungi-based foods most people think of mushrooms, or perhaps reference the presence of fungi in bread, beer, and yeast. These answers only scratch the surface of the potential for fungi-based foods as core nutritional staples, and the variety of benefits these can offer – to humans, animals, and the planet.
Mycelium is a multicellular fungi that can grow into macro-size structures. It has the potential to produce small, microscopic molecules and to assemble them, with supreme precision, into complex structures. These two properties–making small molecules, and assembling them into structures has the potential to level up the food system.
Mycelium is commonly found in nature and can be thought of as the “root” structure of mushrooms, though the reality is slightly more complex. Working similarly to single-celled yeast, mycelium grows through a process of fermentation. It produces enzymes that break down wood and plants into digestible morsels of sugar which are converted to fuel the mycelium. As it grows it assembles into a dense network of long, microscopic fibers and serve as a kind of superhighway (the “wood wide web”) sharing nutrients and information with the surrounding ecosystem.
Once the mycelium network is fully developed, it transitions to its next stage. In nature this is when a visible mushroom begins to emerge from the ground. In a commercial setting this is the stage when humans can coax the mycelium to build predictable structures by controlling environmental factors – the temperature, carbon dioxide levels, humidity, and airflow (among others.)
The process of producing the product is very fast. The accumulation of fibers becomes a visible speck after a few hours, a visible sheet after a day or two, and an 18x2x12 inch sheet weighing a couple of pounds within the course of a week.
There are many species of mushrooms from which mycelium sheets are directly edible, and require minimal processing. Nutritionally, these have been analyzed to show high levels of protein and dietary fiber, and low levels of fat. Making this an attractive alternative to other protein sources.
As a source of protein, mycelium offers a shortcut through the food chain. Directly converting its food through fermentation doesn’t require the acres of land or vast quantities of water needed to support plant growth or animal grazing, making fungi-based protein more efficient to produce than other options.
Much like different mushroom varieties, mycelium have their own unique flavor profiles and many kinds offer a neutral flavor. The fungi’s structure makes them extremely versatile in adopting seasonings and marinades, positioning them as an effective ingredient to a wide array of product offerings.
With the numerous benefits mycelium offers – from its rapid growth rate to low environmental footprint – this ingredient offers a highly versatile option for companies producing alternative protein products.