The powder is mustard yellow and is reminiscent of ground turmeric. But solein, as the dusty invention is called, is neither a plant nor a spice. Rather, it is a protein powder for food supplements, made from air, microbes and solar energy - and should serve as a basis for replacing meat and other foods in the future.
The aim of the Finnish start-up Solar Foods is to revolutionize the global food supply with its product, which was created almost from nothing, while protecting the climate at the same time. Does that sound too good to be true? In Singapore, the powder should be on the market as early as 2024 – it would be the first country in the world.
Solein does not need agriculture and is also praised as a substitute for protein sources such as meat, milk, soybeans or lentils. A novel alternative to animal or vegetable protein. According to the company, it contains 65 to 70 percent protein, 10 to 15 percent fiber, 5 to 8 percent fat and 3 to 5 percent minerals as well as iron and B vitamins. Apparently, it hardly changes the taste of food: the powder is said to have a delicate umami taste, which is often compared to "spicy".
But how does it work? "Basically like a brewery," says Pasi Vainikka, co-founder and managing director of Solar Foods, the German Press Agency. The process is similar to the fermentation process used to make wine or beer. But instead of sugar, the bacteria fed primarily on carbon dioxide, dissolved hydrogen and nitrogen using renewable electricity.
They would be “fed” with this to form amino acids, vitamins, fats and carbohydrates. "When it comes time to harvest the solein, the excess water is removed and it is dried into a protein-rich powder without harming plants or animals," the website says.
But what are the advantages compared to agriculture? "Conventional food production wastes resources such as water, chemicals and animal feed to an unsustainable and unreasonable extent," write the Finnish inventors. Only a fraction of these resources are needed for their product to obtain the same amount of protein. The process is also 20 times more efficient than photosynthesis, which plants use to convert energy into food.
The first Solein factory is currently being built in Vantaa, Finland. Commercial production is expected to begin next year. "In Singapore, it will then be offered in selected restaurants," says Vainikka. First in limited form until production really gets going.
Vainikka is convinced that the Southeast Asian business metropolis is the “perfect hub” for testing the new product. The fact that the official approval time was shorter than in other countries simply has to do with the great efficiency of the city state. However, Solar Foods expects other markets to follow soon, including the European Union, the UK and the US.
The Nordic start-up is not the only one looking to revolutionize the food industry with sustainable cleantech products. The company Air Protein from the USA, which produces finished meat substitute products instead of a powder, works in a similar way, also using "air fermentation". The British-Dutch start-up Deep Branch has developed "Proton" - a high-protein powder made from CO₂ for the animal feed industry.
The makers were inspired by NASA's space program in the 1970s: Even then, researchers were looking for a way to convert elements in the air that the astronauts breathed in into protein. The process was shelved and forgotten – until now.
All of these innovative approaches are about protein and alternatives to animal products, which are at the top of the list of high-protein foods—especially dairy, eggs, and meat. "Protein is an important macronutrient and an essential structural component of our cells," explains Kim Jung Eun from the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of Singapore.
Protein is very important for the body: Since it does not have a protein store, the cells must be regularly supplied with the macromolecule. The German Nutrition Society (DGE) recommends a daily intake of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for adults under the age of 65.
Protein is needed, among other things, to build muscles, bones, skin and hair, but also for enzymes and hormones and for a healthy immune system. Vegetarians and vegans mainly use legumes, vegetables such as broccoli, chia seeds or quinoa as protein suppliers.
"Even today, the protein supply is not guaranteed in many regions of the world, climate change and population growth will exacerbate this problem," says protein researcher Isabel Muranyi from the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging in Freising. "I think that conventional cultivation should be supplemented more by closed systems in the future."
The advantages of bacteria compared to microalgae are the high product yield and the climate-independent production. She does not see the dangers of such techniques as long as it is ensured that no toxic substances are produced. However, people with a tendency to allergies should be careful.
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