The micro-revolution of precision fermentation can change the entire food industry

31 May 2024

Hype & Trend Signal

Most of us hear fermentation and think of kombucha, pickled onions or cucumbers. But fermentation is at the same time more common and more special than we might realize. With precision fermentation, a whole new universe of possibilities might be starting to reveal itself. Let’s take a closer look at this fascinating process and find out what possibilities it has in store for not just the bakery and patisserie world, but the food industry as a whole.

Fermentation crash course

Let’s start with a crash course on what exactly fermentation is. Fermentation is a metabolic process that changes carbohydrates, such as sugars and starches, into alcohol or organic acids. It uses microorganisms like bacteria, yeast, or molds. Perhaps not the terms we like to associate our foods with, but there are the heroes without which beloved products like yogurt, sauerkraut, beer and, of course, something like sourdough would not exist. In the context of food, fermentation is used to produce products with unique flavors, textures and nutritional profiles.

Precision fermentation creates flavor and structure

Now let’s move on to the sweet stuff: precision fermentation. Start-ups in Asia, Europe and the US have recorded some promising results with this innovative technique. Where ‘normal’ fermentation uses bacteria to help transform sugars into their natural next phase like alcohol, precision fermentation helps bacteria to produce specific flavors, by making small changes to their DNA. It is a relatively novel technique, but with exciting potential and the first products have already been taken into production. In theory, there are no limits to the tastes and structures these bacteria produce. Most companies are experimenting with alternatives to products like dairy, eggs or honey, but in the future, these bacteria might even be able to produce salmon or beef, which could radically alter the way we produce and process our foods worldwide and can forge truly sustainable chains. Precision fermentation has the potential to change the global agricultural system for good.

Precision fermentation in bread and pastries

Most, if not all, professionals will know that using yeast is of course pure fermentation. Patissiers and chocolatiers will also know that cocoa beans need to be fermented in order to produce delicious chocolate. But, there are many things in the cocoa value chain that are less than optimal. It’s very difficult to determine if the cocoa has been ethically produced. Also, transport and distribution can be problematic and poor harvests can make prices spike. It would be amazing in more ways than one, to be able to produce your own cacao butter. Precision fermentation might enable the food industry to do just that. 

With the right DNA changes to the bacteria, they should in theory be able to come up with the cocoa and get rid of the beans. Theoretically, there are no limits to the kind of proteins these modified bacteria can produce and this could mean a major transformation of the entire food system. Bakeries look like the businesses that will be able to profit most from these developments: over the past years, the application of precision fermentation has been growing the most rapidly in plant-based baked goods.


Hiccups and milestones

The biggest challenge holding back the development is the difficulty of scaling up. Research facilities are a perfect fit for pilots, innovation and optimization, but creating facilities to mass produce ingredients that can provide large producers in the industry is a major obstacle yet to be overcome.. At this point, the price of precision fermented ingredients is still very high compared to the cost-efficient counterparts they need to replace. As with all innovations though, this technique is expected to grow exponentially cheaper once the first R&D challenges have been conquered. Luckily, there is lots of potential in the first products that are available on the market already, with plenty more to come.

What the future holds

Major companies are already heavily invested in precision fermentation. For example Sparkalis, the first global FoodTech venture in bakery, patisserie and chocolate, launched by Puratos, has acquired a minority stake in Fooditive, a Dutch company that specializes in next-gen sustainable plant-based ingredients. They have developed a calorie-free sweetener and bee-free honey and are researching many more applications. These projects aim to produce new functional ingredients that will open up opportunities and innovations in plant-based baked goods that are both sustainable and tasty, without interfering in the baking process of clients. While consumer awareness of micro fermentation isn’t super high, our analysis shows that people in the US, Denmark, New Zealand, France, Korea and Switzerland have the most online conversations and searches on this topic. 

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