CHICAGO — Chicago-based food tech company Nature’s Fynd plans to open a facility in the Back of the Yards that will help it boost production by launching its meatless breakfast patties and cream cheese dairy-free in stores, including Chicago-area Mariano’s.
It’s one of two Chicago companies to use fermentation to turn mushroom-family microbes into animal-free protein sources, as consumer interest in alternative proteins grows.
U.S. sales of meat alternatives jumped 47% to nearly $1.5 billion in 2020 as consumers stocked up and cooked more at home during the pandemic, according to market research firm Mintel. . Industry experts expect the meteoric growth to slow, but still say sales could increase by 15% a year or more.
“There’s a proliferation of products coming to market, and there’s continued interest,” said Darren Seifer, food and beverage industry analyst at NPD Group.
Among those new products are Nature’s Fynd Meatless Breakfast Patties and Dairy-Free Cream Cheese, which debuted on shelves at Berkeley Bowl stores in California a few weeks ago.
They will soon be available at 44 Mariano’s stores in the Chicago area. Nature’s Fynd aims to distribute them nationwide by the middle of next year.
The launch with two very different products was meant to showcase the versatility of the company’s protein, which it calls Fy, said co-founder and CEO Thomas Jonas.
“Once a consumer understands what Fy is and that it’s a better protein for you and for the planet, the question becomes, how do I get it into my diet as often as possible,” Jonas said. .
Nature’s Fynd’s new 200,000 square foot facility is expected to open in the second quarter of next year and will allow the company to produce three to five times more protein than its current site near Union Stockyards. There will also be space for research and development.
Unlike plant-based meat alternatives from companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, Nature’s Fynd products use a protein made from a microbe from the volcanic hot springs in Yellowstone National Park. It undergoes fermentation in stacks of trays, feeding on sugars to create protein while using a fraction of the land, water and energy needed to raise animals, Jonas said.
The company raised $350 million in funding earlier this year, led by new investor SoftBank, bringing its total funding to more than $500 million. It has 152 employees at its Chicago headquarters and Bozeman, Montana, research and development center, and expects to add 200 jobs in Chicago by the end of 2023.
Although fermentation-based protein alternatives are less common than plant-based options, investor interest is growing. According to a report by the Good Food Institute, a non-profit organization that advocates meat alternatives.
Fillets without fish
Nature’s Fynd isn’t the only Chicago company using fermentation to make alternative proteins. Aqua Cultured Foods is using a similar strategy, albeit relying on a different microbe, to provide customers with meatless options in a category they’re particularly hard to find: seafood.
River North-based Aqua Cultured Foods raised $2.1 million last week to accelerate research and development into alternative whole-muscle cut seafood, including tuna and whitefish fillets that it describes as “sushi quality”.
CEO Anne Palermo declined to say which strain of mushroom the company uses, but said its fishless fillets would contain an amount of protein comparable to a serving of cod. The protein takes the shape of whatever container it’s grown in, allowing it to replicate a wide range of seafood using plant-based flavors, Palermo said.
Shrimp, squid and sushi cuts are the first products Aqua Cultured Foods plans to bring to market.
While plant-based burgers are now widely available, even on fast-food menus, seafood alternatives have been slower to take off.
According to the Good Food Institute.
Consumers buy more beef than fish, so it’s no surprise that companies making animal-free protein started with burgers, Seifer said.
Many people also view fish as a relatively healthy option, which may undermine consumers’ interest in eating meatless meats because they believe it’s a healthier choice, said health analyst Karen Formanski. and nutrition at Mintel.
Interest in alternatives
About 56% of US consumers ate plant-based protein for better health, according to a 2020 Mintel report. Only 16% said they chose plant-based protein to reduce their impact on the environment, while 13% were concerned about the animal wellbeing. Young consumers were more likely to be motivated by environmental impact.
Still, there is interest. Among American adults who eat plant proteins, including beans and grains, 60% were interested in eating alternative fish and 53% expressed interest in alternative shellfish, according to a Mintel report from earlier this year.
The lack of widely available alternative seafood options isn’t just a matter of demand. Ground beef is also likely easier to replicate convincingly than whole cuts of meat, such as a steak or a piece of salmon, Formanski said.
Aqua Cultured Foods is “still optimizing and refining the product”, but Palermo aims to start testing with chefs next year before ramping up production for retail sales.
“We want to save our oceans and sustainably feed the world, and the best way to do that is to get our product to people,” she said.