From meat-free burger patties to vegan sausages and plant-based spaghetti bolognese, animal-free products are increasingly making their way onto supermarket shelves and into shopping carts.
Flinders University researcher Associate Professor Munish Puri has caught onto the animal-free meat movement and discovered a promising new way to develop nutritional supplements.
He believes the key to manufacturing animal-free meat is the requirement of proteins, fats and nutrients from thraustochytrids. Thraustochytrids are oleaginous (oily) microbes sourced from the pristine waters of South Australia and play an important role in the production of single cell oils (SCO).
SCOs are considered a promising oil alternative to those from fish and land-based plant sources and could prove vital in making everything from supplements, medicines and biofuels to cosmetics and animal-free meat.
“By tuning thraustochytrids through fermentation we can produce SCO, which can be used in the nutraceutical industry for supplements and biodiesel, with the added advantage that it doesn’t require agricultural land and can be cultivated in a controlled environment, keeping them free from contamination,” Munish says.
Associate Professor Munish Puri, left and Research Associate Dr Adarsha Gupta from Flinders University's College of Medicine and Public Health.
“We also know that thraustochytrids can produce a wide range of high-value bioproducts, such as omega-3 fatty acids, squalene (used in cosmetics and vaccines), exopolysaccharides (used in pharmaceuticals), enzymes, aquaculture feed, pigments and lipids suitable for biodiesel composition.”
In 2022, Nourish Ingredients Pty Ltd alongside Munish and his team at Flinders were awarded $2.829 million from the federal government’s Cooperative Research Centres Projects (CRC-P) Grants to develop environmentally friendly lipid using the fermented oily microbes.
He says the oily microbes produce a high lipid (fat) content, expected to mimic the structure of animal fats, resulting in similar sensory properties including taste.
"The biggest challenge faced by food producers is to create animal-free meat with fine texture, flavour and meat-like mouthfeel," Munish says. "It's anticipated that this can be improved by adding fat and its substitutes."
The precision fermentation process.
With the integration of fermentation and advanced manufacturing, Munish and his colleagues say the Australian food industry could deliver a safe, sustainable, and competitive supply of this ‘superfood’ - SCO.
“This technology will protect the environment, minimise reliance on animal fats, and support sustainability as well as affordable and enhanced human nutrition,” he says.
So, what is behind the plant-based boom?
Munish says the primary driver of growth in plant-based eating is health but it's also environmental consciousness and animal welfare.
“Australia has the food-agricultural capacity, commercial appetite and research know-how to become an international leader in new protein industries including plant-based meat,” he says.
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