Solving food's biggest future challenges is a family affair for this Israel alt-protein specialist
Feeding a rapidly rising human population with increasingly limited (and increasingly sought-after) resources is without doubt one of the key challenges of our time. It’s not so much feeding ~10 billion people by 2050 but doing so without further damaging the planet we inhabit in the process.
The global food system – encompassing production, and post-farm processing and distribution – is a key contributor to the climate crisis, responsible for approximately 26% of global GHG emissions. If we are to solve this, everything needs to change – the way food is grown and made, where it is made relative to where it ends up, and especially what we consume.
Although microalgae consumption is not yet widespread, the case for it becoming a source of food in the future is a compelling one. Indeed there are numerous alt-protein specialists around the world investing millions because they believe that to be the case. And the idea isn’t that far out of left field either. Humans have been eating microalgae for millennia – the Mesoamerican Aztecs were harvesting it to make some of the world’s first burgers.
And it’s abundant. More than 500,000 different strains of microalgae exist in nature yet only a tiny fraction have been researched, and only a handful are being used for human consumption. Many types of algae are nutritionally complete foods, with yields outperforming most plant crops. They also naturally contain 40-60% protein, alongside a variety of other healthy ingredients. Up to 60 nutrients can be extracted, including vegetable protein, multivitamins, amino acids, beta-glucan, antioxidants, fatty acid, astaxanthin, and more. It has 15 times more protein than soy and contains other vitamin sources such as C, B1, B2, B12, K, zinc, iron and magnesium.
One of the criticisms of plant-based food products is that they have very low nutritional value. The alternative proteins market also faces numerous challenges when it comes to cost, flavor, functionality, quality and sustainability. These are challenges that are being addressed by the Israel-based company Brevel. According to Yonatan Golan, CEO & Co-Founder, microalgae are “the ultimate source of protein in terms of sustainability”.
Compared with soy, for example – today’s front-runner among plant-based proteins – microalgae are 99.95% more efficient in terms of land usage, 67% more efficient in GHG emissions and 55% more efficient in water usage. As the food sector looks for new ways to become more environmentally friendly, unearthing ways to incorporate microalgae into mainstream food production offers a novel solution for food producers to lower their carbon footprints.
So, given all of these benefits, what has been holding this special ingredient back? “Very high costs and flavor barriers,” believes Golan, who founded Brevel with his brothers, Matan (COO) and Ido (CTO). “To date, no-one has been able to solve the cost and quality barriers.” To address these key hurdles, Brevel’s technology is based on high-tech indoor, sterile and fully automated systems that are illuminated from within at high intensity. “The process enables the production of microalgae at a cost reduction of more than 90% and includes nutrient-rich ingredients and functionalities that are only produced in the presence of light,” reveals Golan, who, as an aside, is vegan both from a moral and sustainable standpoint.
Golan claims that Brevel is the first company globally that has been able to combine sugar-based fermentation and light in a single process. The result, he says, is an “affordable microalgae that can be produced at very high yields”, and that are “rich with all of the functionalities, ingredients and nutrients that are only produced in the presence of light”.
Brevel is currently focused on food applications at this point, including plant-based dairy, egg, fish and seafood. “Our protein comes as a dry powder which can be simply added directly to formulations,” says Golan. “Our partners today add it in different forms – either directly as powder, or apply some processes such as homogenization, secondary fermentation, etc, to increase its solubility, extract additional flavors and more. This depends on their specific needs and preferences.”
As far as its profiles go, it has a very mild flavor and color which makes it very suitable for food applications where flavor masking is not an option – mostly plant-based dairy and egg alternatives. These food applications, notes Golan, don't have suitable solutions today at affordable costs. “The leading protein sources (soy and pea) have very strong flavors, are allergenic and suffer from negative market perception and thus cannot be good solutions,” he continues. “Furthermore, our protein has a full amino acid profile and very high digestibility scores.”
In terms of functionality, for Brevel’s first tranche of partners, Golan says he and his team are actually trying to be as inert as possible, by increasing the nutritional profile of products without changing taste, color, texture or cost for the end consumer. “One of our piloting partners described it as a ‘ghost protein’ - it increases protein content without you noticing it is there,” he says. “In the second stage, we will be looking to provide functionalities such as gelation, texturing, emulsification and more, which are mostly suitable for fish and seafood alternatives.”
Brevel recently made The Future of Protein Production news pages following the announcement that it had partnered with Yotvata to build a commercial-scale microalgae manufacturing facility, an investment made possible by a US$8.4 million Seed funding round. “With the closing of that round, conditions are ripe for the next stage of mass production. We are now increasing our capabilities on the food technology side with more advanced equipment, food processing capabilities, advanced analytical tools and a food engineering team,” says Golan, when asked about how the funds will be invested.
The alt-protein specialist’s dedicated investors also include FoodHack, Good Startup VC, Tet Ventures and Nevateam Ventures among other prominent investors from the food-tech industry. The round also includes significant funding from the European Union’s prestigious program Horizon 2020 and Israel’s Innovation Authority in the form of non-dilutive grants. The facility will be home to the largest fermentation reactors of its kind, at 30,000 liters, which will have the capacity to produce 900,000 liters a year when fully operational to support the rising demand in the EU and Middle Eastern markets. Brevel currently uses fermenters that have the capacity of 5,000 liters, so it’s a significant boost for scaling.
“The reaction to Brevel has been amazing,” he concludes. “We recently had a taste lab where industry leaders tasted a ‘YoEgg’ which contained Brevel. The functionality was high, digestibility, and no taste and color which is crucial.”
As opposed to other alternative proteins that are dependent on weather and climate and seasonality, Brevel’s alternative protein is additionally fermented, hence it can be cultivated anywhere in the world without the transportation of goods. Another sustainability box ticked.
Brevel is one of eight companies featured in our Deep Dive on novel ingredients in the launch edition of Protein Production Technology International, which is published on 26 October 2022. To subscribe to the 100-page first edition, click here
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