Producing animal proteins, without using animals as a raw material: that’s what Paleo does using precision fermentation. A piece of DNA code from beef, tuna or chicken is added to a kind of yeast so that this produces proteins, myoglobins, which are identical to animal proteins. Completely outside the yeast cell itself. In this way, Paleo can harvest 100% pure protein which improves every meat substitute in terms of texture, aroma, flavour and nutritional value. This means that meat substitutes need far less salt, aromas and flavourings, thus simplifying the recipe and reducing the cost price.
All of this sounds amazing. But are these proteins actually animal proteins? According to Hermes Sanctorum, that is absolutely not the case: “No, we don’t use a single animal cell in the process. We went back to the basics of meat: what makes meat meat? And can we make that without animals? The answer is yes. Animal-free and identical to the protein you find in meat.”
Paleo’s proteins are also free from genetically modified organisms. And there are no nutritional additives, just ingredients. Sanctorum adds: “But there is a hyperfunctional ingredient: with 1% of our protein in a meat substitute, you already achieve a huge impact.” Furthermore, the proteins contain heme iron, the form of iron that is quickly and easily absorbed by the human body. Sanctorum, himself a long-term vegetarian: “In this way, we prevent vegetarians from suffering iron deficiency without meat. Without causing suffering to an animal. Pure health benefits. And no risk of stray hormones or antibiotics.”
Compared with agriculture, fermentation is also very sustainable. Sanctorum explains: “Fermentation is incredibly efficient. You don’t need many raw materials, very little energy, less water and – compared with livestock farming – virtually no space. You can certainly tackle the nitrogen crisis with these kinds of techniques. People used fermentation long before they started farming.”
Asked whether production could be easily expanded so that the world can benefit sooner, Sanctorum says: “Definitely! But not from one day to the next. The technology is amazing, but you need to have enough fermentors in which the yeast can grow and make proteins. Fortunately, existing pharmaceutical fermentors can be easily modified. So that’s hopeful!”
For some time, Sanctorum had been toying with the idea of bringing back an ancient protein alongside chicken or beef protein. During the Covid pandemic, he read an article in Nature about the oldest known DNA, from the steppe mammoth, dating back over a million years. Sanctorum got in touch with the Centre for Palaeogenetics in Stockholm, which was immediately open for collaboration. Together, they analysed the mammoth DNA until they found exactly the right piece: myoglobin from the steppe mammoth.
Meat experience through flavour, aroma and colour
A meat substitute must have the right flavour, aroma, colour and texture to be popular. Paleo has created and added various proteins to vegetarian alternatives. After the preparation, everything was measured and analysed. What substances are released? What does it smell like? How does it taste?
Paleo proteins give meat substitutes a real experience of meat, including a delicious meat aroma and spicy meat flavour. Flavour tests show that the mammoth protein scores even more highly than beef protein. Colour is also very important. In the food industry, there is still nothing that is red when raw and brown when cooked. That’s what myoglobin does in a meat substitute. Just like a real beef steak. An interesting property of the mammoth version of the protein is that it is more stable than other myoglobins. By adding mammoth protein to a meat substitute, it stays red for a long time. Which is good for the shelf life of meat substitutes.
To protect Paleo’s invention, Sanctorum contacted NLO. Due to the biotech-related expertise available at NLO, this was an obvious choice. “Those first conversations were crucial. If NLO hadn’t given us positive advice, Paleo would not have been created,” says Sanctorum. And Sanctorum heeded the later advice – after the first filing – to collect as much scientific data as possible. “Our patent attorney knows every detail of our product and is a great sparring partner for the next steps in our strategy and our ideas. Which is why we are where we are now; our invention has become fully fledged.”
A very important aspect of the patent is that although Paleo makes the protein with a genetically modified organism (GMO), it does not get into the protein. And this distinguishes it from many other precision fermenters. An extremely innovative process. An animal-free, animal protein without GMOs is very unusual.
Flexitarians a fast-growing target group
You won’t find many meat substitutes containing the mammoth protein in the supermarket. “But front-runners are already doing their own tests. It won’t be long,” says Sanctorum. “Our customers are mainly focusing on the growing group of flexitarians. People who enjoy eating meat but who feel increasingly uncomfortable about it. Producers want to give flexitarians a perfect meat experience, but without the meat. For them, it must really resemble meat. Meat has been dominant in our diet for so long, and it won’t go away any time soon.”