Mycelium: What is it and Why is it Gaining Popularity?
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Mycelium: What is it and Why is it Gaining Popularity?
by Theresa Houghton, Chief Nerd @ The Modern Health Nerd
There’s more to fungi than meets the eye.
Those mushrooms that pop up in your yard after a good rain are hiding a secret that just might be the next big thing in the alternative protein space: a vast underground network of filamentous fibers called mycelium.
What’s so great about a network of filamentous fungi fibers (say that five times fast)? Well, quite a bit! Thanks to its versatility and unique structure, some mycelium can be used to create foods that mimic the texture of animal meat with a much lower impact on the environment—and it has some unique nutritional properties, too.
Take a dive into the world of mycelium-based alternative proteins (we’ll refer to them mostly as ‘mycelium proteins’ from here on) to learn why they are being used to make more food products.
Mycelium, mycelia, mycelial protein…let’s get things straight.
Before continuing on, take a moment to familiarize yourself with these relevant terms that will be popping up a lot more in the food space. Refer back to this list at any point for clarification.
The network of branched tubular fungi filaments (individually known as hyphae).1
The plural form of ‘mycelium.’2
Made up of mycelium, these networks allow plants to exchange sugars, nutrients, water, and more.3
The new net protein that is created when some forms of fungus undergo a fermentation process.4
A microbial protein made from the naturally-occurring fungus, Fusarium venenatum. It is one example of a mycelial protein.5
The basic fungal unit; the individual fungi filaments that form any fungi.6
From mycelium to meat substitute.
Before mycelium becomes edible fungi protein, it has to develop. The way this works when making food is a little different than what happens in nature, but understanding the big picture of both scenarios can help you comprehend why these filamentous fungi networks have so much potential.
Mycelium in nature: An underground communication network.
Mycelium is made up of tiny filaments called hyphae, some of which are too small to see.7 Hyphae combine as they grow to form larger mycelial threads that branch out through the soil, forming vast networks that can stretch for miles. These massive mycelial organisms allow fungi to communicate with each other by sending chemical signals through the soil.8
Think about that: When you’re walking through the woods, fungi are “talking” to each other beneath your every step. Crazy, right?
Some mycelium, known as mycorrhizae9, also share nutrients from substrates with plants in an ongoing symbiotic cycle. This helps the plants to grow and thrive, so it’s a win-win relationship.
Mycelium in place of meat: Fermenting fungi.
Making mycelium-based meat and dairy substitutes doesn’t involve soil or filamentous fungi communication networks. Instead, the mycelium from certain types of fungus is grown indoors through fermentation of the fungal microbe, which can produce large amounts of mycelium protein. Not all mycelium is the same, and it requires certain fungus strains to produce the mycelium protein that is ideal for animal protein substitutes.
How it works depends on the type of fermentation implemented. But regardless of the chosen process, the fermentation activity results in a mycelium-based protein that is high in fiber, high in protein, and low in fat. And the best part? It can be used to make uncanny meat and dairy substitutes.
Mycelium and muscle: Unusually similar.
One of the most impressive characteristics of mycelium protein is its texture. The filamentous fungi fibers are similar to those in muscle. Both muscle cells and fungal hyphae have strong structures. In hyphae, the filaments are made up of fibers and proteins, including a tough fiber called chitin. Animal muscle gets its structure from cylindrical cells that differentiate from other cell types during embryonic development.10 As muscles form, the fibers bundle together in a way that’s similar to hyphae combining into mycelium. Both processes create tube shapes that can be similar in size, resulting in comparable frameworks.
This is a huge benefit compared to some plant-based proteins, which are isolates.. For some common alternative proteins, you must extract the protein out of the food and then create the texture from the ground up using other ingredients. The resulting texture typically varies significantly from that of animal meat.
And mycelium doesn’t just lend itself well to alternative meat products; it also makes a fantastic dairy substitute. The mycelium protein provides an ideal amount of body and structure to the end product and the taste is like a blank canvas, ready to take on any added flavors.
What are the benefits of mycelium protein?
Okay, so this is all great news for mycelium as an alternative to animal-based ingredients. But if the texture is so similar to meat, why not just eat meat?
The answer becomes clear when you compare protein from animals to alternatives from mycelium in terms of sustainability and nutrition.
Sustainability: Meat and dairy vs. mycelium.
Mass meat and dairy production puts a strain on natural resources and creates byproducts like greenhouse gasses that can increase global warming potential (GWP) and negatively affect the environment. In comparison, growing mycelium-based proteins like Fy Protein™ produce markedly less GWP and require significantly fewer resources at scale.
Take a look at the eyebrow-raising stats below to see what we mean.11
Compared to beef, Fy uses 99% less water, 99% less land, and yields 94% less GWP.
Compared to pork, Fy uses 87% less water, 90% less land, and yields 72% less GWP.
Compared to chicken, Fy uses 79% less water, 88% less land, and yields 39% less GWP.
These are pretty significant numbers, especially when you consider that the US alone produces around 14 billion kilograms of beef12, 19.98 billion kilograms of chicken13, and 12.87 billion kilograms of pork14 every year.
Fermentation is also quite efficient when compared to producing animal meat. Whereas it takes seven to nine weeks15 for a typical broiler chicken to mature and a year and a half for a beef cow16, protein from mycelium can be ready for harvest in just a few days. This ability to produce more protein in less time using less land and water gives mycelium the potential to provide the world with a steady source of nutritious, sustainable food.
Mycelium: a nutritious meat alternative
Swapping animal protein for alternative proteins made from mycelium may also offer nutritional benefits. Although little research has been done on the specific effects of eating meat substitutes made from mycelium, evidence suggests that some of the nutrients contained in these mycelium proteins may have beneficial properties.
Please note that the information contained in this section is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical or nutrition advice.
Fiber for a happy gut & beyond.
Mycelium protein contains fiber. When you eat fiber, it remains undigested until it reaches your gut’s microbial community, usually in the colon. These microbes in the gut break down the fiber and, in the process, produce metabolites like short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs)17. SCFAs can have numerous benefits throughout the body. Conversely, since animal proteins don’t have any fiber, eating meat doesn’t promote SCFA production or its subsequent benefits.
Low in saturated fat
Because mycelium protein is lower in saturated fat than animal meat, swapping the former for the latter can lower your saturated fat intake. In fact Quorn, which utilizes the fungus strain Fusarium Venanatum, has conducted some research that highlights these benefits. The data concludes that Quorn mycoprotein, a mycelium protein, can lower circulating cholesterol concentrations, which suggests a potential connection to improved heart health.18
But does mycelium protein taste good?
One of the best parts about using mycelium for food products is that you don’t need to sacrifice flavor.. Mycelium protein can be a neutral-tasting blank slate for other flavors — which, when you think about it, is similar to meat. Most people wouldn’t just eat a steak without any of the typical delicious seasonings. Similarly, mycelium protein soaks up all of the flavorful goodness that it is cooked with. Mycelium protein can also be turned into a liquid or powder and used to increase the protein content in foods such as dairy-free spreads.
Mycelium: the takeaway.
From sustainability to versatility to nutrition and flavor, mycelium meat and dairy substitutes have huge potential. And this novel protein source is making its way onto more grocery store shelves across the nation. So keep an eye out for new products made with mycelium. It has the potential to change the way you think about—and eat—meat.
Want to try some mycelium-based meat alternatives for yourself? Check out these breakfast sausage patties made with Fy Protein from Nature’s Fynd.
11. Fy environmental performance modeled at scale, 2021. https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1wRPus1ZkD0EoghqmWD6pvIYein1ix5fy/edit?usp=sharing&ouid=102600375769259037154&rtpof=true&sd=true