Increasingly important role of yeast in the production of sustainable food and beverages

Why are we writing about this topic:

How will we feed the world’s population in fifty years? The solution could just (partially) lie with yeast. Professor of food microbiology Eddy Smid explains which solutions Wageningen University & Research is currently investigating.

Recently, Innovation Origins published a report on the innovative beer of the British brewer Cloudwater Brew Co. Together with the University of Manchester, they brewed a series of beers based on a new type of yeast. The press release gave food for thought.

The professor promises that it won’t just be beer. “Science is getting better at domesticating yeast. In the future, yeast, fungi and other microorganisms will play a big role when it comes to the sustainable production of healthy and tasty food and drink.” Much of the food and drink we consume every day is fermented: bread, chocolate, coffee, yogurt, cheese, beer.

Fermentation is one of the oldest technologies we have for preserving food. It started when humanity started farming and the harvest was greater than what the village needed at the time. There were no refrigerators yet. So the food and drink were dried, salted or fermented. “We were able to ferment before we could write and read,” says the professor enthusiastically.

Professor Eddy Smith

Hybrid yeast strain

Fermentation is the process by which raw vegetable or animal products are transformed into easily digestible and healthy food through the action of microorganisms such as yeast or bacteria. A yeast is a microorganism, a single-celled fungus. Fermenting microorganisms form a barrier to the growth of pathogenic and destructive microorganisms. In addition, they add nutrients, vitamins and/or flavor.

Smid: “There are many mushrooms, especially multicellular ones, that are distinguished by producing good, strong aromas. These fungi are visible to the naked eye as thin threads. Think of the blue cheese, for example. Or miso (a type of maggi) from Asia: natural flavor enhancers made with mushrooms.”

Ten years ago, research from Delft University of Technology showed that yeast types can also consist of a fusion of two different yeast types. “We call it a hybrid yeast strain. The discovery has allowed us to learn more and more about the properties of yeast.” So the British have now created a hybrid yeast strain that excels in certain properties. “In doing so, they use the yeast’s natural ability to reproduce sexually and set up a breeding program. That way you can exert a great influence on the properties of yeast and multicellular fungi.”

Alternative to animal proteins

The use of yeast and molds goes far beyond just beer. Multicellular fungi can also help develop an alternative to animal proteins. “We have now learned that it is unsustainable to rely too much on animal proteins for our food supply. Something has to replace it. In our laboratory in Wageningen, we are investigating which fungi we can use to produce high-quality protein.

The protein composition of mushrooms is very close to that of meat. While we currently hardly use mushrooms as a protein source, in the near future we will probably be eating burgers made from mushroom proteins. “We are now looking at whether we can improve the protein quality of grains by fermenting them with a fungus.”

“We have now learned that it is unsustainable to rely too much on animal proteins for our food supply. Something has to replace it. In Wageningen, we are investigating which mushrooms we can use to produce high-quality protein.”

Eddy Smith

It just might be the solution to the protein deficiency in children growing up in countries where people depend on rice. “They often do not get enough proteins of sufficient quality, which slows down growth. Rice is a poor source of protein. But if you ferment rice with fungi, you partially convert it into fungal biomass.” Fermentation – with the help of fungi – thus adds something to the rice, resulting in a final product with much better nutritional value. “It’s a very cheap and accessible way to produce protein with a high nutritional value.”

meat taste

There are already enough meat substitutes on the market whose structure is close to that of pork or beef. This usually does not apply to the taste. One of Smid’s PhD students is working on a project where she uses yeast to produce a meat flavour. After all: A hamburger only really tastes like hamburger if it also smells the same.

Yeast naturally produces a lot of vitamin B1, a sulfur-containing vitamin. The typical aroma of fried meat is largely due to the breakdown products of thiamin (vitamin B1), explains Smid. “We looked for yeasts that already produce a lot of B1 naturally. We let them go into a kind of evolution where they produce even more vitamin B1. So we don’t do genetic manipulation, but we get a yeast strain that produces a lot of thiamin on a natural way. If you add them to existing meat substitutes, these products come closer in taste and aroma to beef steak or a hamburger.”

Tasty, non-alcoholic beer

Then there is also the emergence of alcohol-free and low-alcohol beers that can be made much more flavorful through the innovative use of new types of yeast. If you’re at the pub with a 0.0 beer on your good behavior, it still tastes quite a bit less good than the alternatives that contain alcohol.

How is it possible? “Without alcohol, it is much more difficult to preserve aromas. So you have to approach it in a different way. We have created a mixed culture. This means that we bring together two yeasts that have never seen each other in the wild, but both have the properties you need for a nice low-alcohol beer. One that makes a lot of fruity aroma and one that is responsible for the formation of carbon dioxide and the basic aromas of beer.”

In that respect, it is a big difference from ten years ago, when Smid also approached the industry with these kinds of ideas. At the time, many companies were not eager to start new fermentation processes. Now it is much more necessary to develop alternative, non-animal products. “In short, the research we do is only becoming more relevant. More and more companies are interested in making high-quality meat substitutes. Not only food manufacturers, but also ingredient manufacturers want to use fermentation to, for example, create new flavourings.”

Leave a Comment