Mushrooms are having a moment. Not only has the fungus turned into one of the summer’s most surprising fashion trends, but ads for mushroom drinks, supplements, and face serums have been sprouting up on people’s TikTok and Instagram feeds like their real-life counterparts. It also helps that the enigmatic nature of the mushrooms has captured the world's imagination like never before through the popular documentaries like Fantastic Fungi. Take mycelium, for example. This is a network of root-like fungal fibers responsible for connecting almost all plant life together.
Now, they’re even making their way to our stomachs in a way that might surprise you.
Mycelium mushroom roots can be transformed into meat like substances that could radically change the alternative meat industry and provide sustainable, healthy protein for a rapidly growing population. Given the urgent need to create sustainable food products in a world rapidly coming to terms with climate disaster, fungi-based meats might not only have unique advantages over animals, but other plant-based meats too.
That’s because a single strain of mycelium, grown the right way, can do the job of multiple plants, creating more realistic “meat” at a greater scale—and for less money too. It could also solve some of the problems that alternative meat products face today.
In 2020, UK supermarket chain Tesco saw an almost 50 percent rise in demand for meat-free alternatives. At the same time, demand across the US rose by 27 percent. Evidence suggests that this stunning increase reflected, at least in part, growing concerns about the meat industry, its environmental impact, and the hazards of livestock-based disease. In 2020, the alternative meat industry was worth $4.2 billion, and was predicted to grow 600 percent ($28 billion) by 2025. Plant-based meat was going to take on the meat industry and save the planet in the process.
But, two years later, signs emerged that industry was beginning to stumble.
First quarter earnings reports in 2022 for plant-based meat giants Beyond Meat and Maple Leaf Foods showed flat or negative growth. Beyond Meat reported a $100.5 million loss for the last quarter. While these sales figures don’t spell doom for the plant-based meat industry, the initial boom appears to be over and consumers are settling back into previous eating habits. As the plant-based meat sales slowed in 2021 and 2022, global demand for real meat increased significantly—so much so that we set a new record for global meat consumption.
So, what happened?
“I think disruptions in food purchasing and consumption patterns due to the pandemic could be one big factor,” Waverly Eichhorst, a food systems researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder, told The Daily Beast. “I also think there is room to continue improving product taste, texture, and nutrition of plant-based meat products.”
In other words, faux “meat” is still pretty gross—and has a long way to go. While plant-based meats have made real progress over the last 10 years, food scientists are still struggling to create a texture and taste that satisfies carnivores.
For conscientious eaters, some ingredients in plant-based meats can also be off-putting. For example, Impossible Foods uses genetically-modified soy to create the blood-like taste and look of their burger. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods also do not disclose the environmental impact of the crops needed to create plant-based meats, so comparisons between the meat industry are speculative at best. Plus, there’s the fact that several alternative-meat companies have been caught using blood from cow fetuses in order to supplement their products.
Enter mycelium-based proteins (known as mycoproteins), which have several advantages over plant-based meats. First there is the “meaty” texture—the holy grail of alternative meats. Plants must go through high-moisture extrusion processing that affects proteins’ molecular structure in order to achieve a meat-like texture. Mycelium’s fibrous, thread-like structure can simply be grown in a lab to resemble meat in a truly uncanny way.
“Fungi are much more closely related to animals than they are to plants,” Loes van Dam, a researcher at the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Biosustainability, told The Daily Beast. “They are also typically incredibly high in protein content.”
Mycoproteins can also be scaled in environmentally sustainable ways that plant-based meats cannot. “Fungi are extremely important for the circularity of our ecosystem—and by using them in our food system we can also increase the circularity and sustainability of our food system,” said van Dam. She adds that fungi can grow atop virtually anything organic—allowing it to transform “low-value waste streams” like garbage and decaying flora into “nutritious and delicious food.”
In other words, fungi can feed on junk and still be good for you.
There are several mycoprotein companies with meat-like products already available. Colorado-based Meati is perhaps the most high profile and has three products currently for sale: chicken cutlets, breaded chicken cutlets, and steak.
“We identified a unique strain of mushroom root that delivers an unparalleled foundation on many fronts, including flavors, textures, nutrition and how fast it can grow,” CEO and co-founder Tyler Huggins told The Daily Beast. “The potential for what we can make is limitless”.
While Meati might taste good, their current prices could leave potential customers heading back to the meat aisle. A four-pack of one one of the cutlets is $25–prohibitively expensive for the average consumer. But Huggins believes that growing mycelium is efficient enough to bring that price down at scale.
“Meati can turn a fifth of a teaspoon of spores into a full cow’s equivalent of meat in four days,” Huggins claimed. “It’s simply a matter of expanding production operations.”
Huggins added that Meati plans to grow their operations to produce “tens of millions of pounds” of their products annually. Given current trends, they expect to have no problems selling either. Meati’s preorder event earlier this year “sold out in less than 24 hours,” Huggins said. Their recent product drops sold out “in single-digit minutes.”
While die hard carnivores may never accept mycoproteins as a replacement for meat, they might accept them as an alternative. But if the dire predictions about our food system turn out to be right, then our preference for real meat might not even matter. Thankfully, though, a tasty, nutritious, sustainable alternative already exists. And it has been growing right under our feet all along.