The need to combat climate change may lead us to reinvent food through the use of air.
Dr. Pasi Vainikka holding Solein.
By Elena Kefalogianni
In the future, “air” may be part of our diet. Some might find the concept laughable, but scientists around the world are looking for ways to combat climate change and help us live a healthier lifestyle. Using elements of air to create non-animal proteins may be one of the answers.
Solar Foods, a Finnish startup, is already doing it. Dr. Pasi Vainikka, the CEO of Solar Foods, has invented Solein, an air-based protein that he makes through a process of gas fermentation by using elements of air such as hydrogen and carbon dioxide.
“It’s a product from nature, and it’s been there for millions of years…” said Vainikka.
“Food accounts for over a quarter (26%) of global greenhouse gas emissions,” according to Our World in Data. Dr. Debjani Sihi, an environmental biogeochemist, and professor at Emory University explained that while creating non-animal proteins alone will not save the planet, it could help alleviate the burden on the environment. Sihi said that the environmental consequences of greenhouse gas emissions affect everyone, creating a need to reimagine food.
Solar Foods is one of few companies looking to use air to create air-based proteins that can be added to a range of foods. Air Protein, a startup in California, is also using air to create air-based meats.
None of these proteins are on the market yet. But Vainikka hopes that Solein will be available in products on supermarket shelves later this year.
But how can we make people crave air-based proteins?
DC-based Chef Spike Mendelsohn, and fifth-place finisher of the fourth season of Top Chef, said that air has been used for years as a cooking technique but not as part of the food production process.
“The way we air dry stuff or sundry… Air has a way of preserving things,” he said.
Mendelsohn has launched a new company, Eat the Change, with products like mushroom jerkies that he creates by using airflow to dehydrate the mushrooms.
“It’s a native food; there is no processing, and it’s delicious,” said Mendelsohn.
Mendelsohn sees a future where more people will opt for plant-based dishes. During the pandemic, he opened seven locations of his plant-based restaurant, PLNT Burger, where he serves Beyond Meat burgers, cauliflower nachos, and fungi sandwiches.
“The pandemic expedited the momentum that the plant-based movement is already having because of referencing certain viruses that come from animals,” he said.
As for Solein, Mendelsohn sees this protein as another opportunity to diversify his restaurants’ menus.
“If I had Solein, I would make sure it passes the first test on foods that are very classic to America. For example, let’s see how Solein does in a burger form or tacos,” he said.
Despite the movement towards plant-based proteins, Mendelsohn said that most people are flexitarian; they increase diversity in their diets without necessarily giving up animal proteins.
But Vainikka said that Solein could become a successful substitute for animal proteins because it doesn’t require pesticides or the need to cut forests for agricultural land, thus making the product more environmentally friendly.
In fact, Solar Foods secured a $5.2 million grant from Business Finland to be used for commercializing Solein. “The latest funding takes the company’s total financing since its inception in 2017 to $30 million.”
“In funding, timing is everything. Only a handful of years ago, thinking of producing new foods with single-cell proteins might have been too strange… These days it’s almost like mainstream,” said Vainikka.
The process of making Solein is similar to winemaking; a microbe is placed in an aqueous solution, but instead of being fed sugar like in winemaking, the microbe “eats” hydrogen, carbon dioxide, nutrients, and vitamins. In the end, after extracting the liquid and drying it, he is left with a powder that contains 54% protein as well as carbohydrates and fat.
The Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS) is conducting research on the environmental impact of the process with which Solein is created. In their initial findings, they state that “the minimum greenhouse gas emission level per kg of protein produced by Solar Foods was 0.4kg CO2, compared to 45kg for beef and 80kg for lamb.” Researchers also concluded that Solein would provide food security as its production is not dependent on seasonal changes; however, it requires electricity.
Sihi believes that the use of renewable energy sources makes Solein an environmentally sustainable food, which can help decrease the carbon footprint. She also explained that beef and cows are one of the biggest contributors in the food industry to greenhouse gas emissions and specifically methane, so what we eat has an impact on the environment.
But what is the cost?
Sihi said that food needs to be both sustainable and economically friendly to the average middle-class family.
Vainikka has not set a price for Solein yet. When it becomes available on the market, Vainikka hopes that Solein will match the prices of organic products since the only costly part is the initial technological investment, not the production process. While there are no estimates for how large the market for air-based proteins will be, plant-based proteins that are already available on the market are expected to grow by 7% from 2020 to 2026, according to a report by Markets and Markets.
However, Sihi examined whether following good agricultural practices, which means adhering to rules for safe product production and avoiding industrial scale, may be more affordable for people and still benefit the environment while also being nutritionally sufficient.
Vainikka said that he could not make any health claims yet. But he believes that Solein may assist in the fight against world hunger as it has amino acids (building blocks of all proteins) and carotenoids, which turn into vitamin A.
However, he expects people to combine Solein with vegetables.
Fedon Lindberg, an endocrinologist, and dietician said that a plant-based diet is healthier than an animal-based diet. However, he emphasized that people are omnivores.
“Humans are not made to eat plants exclusively because of our teeth and the length of our intestine,” said Lindberg.
He explained that there is currently no scientific evidence that shows the long-term effects of replacing animal proteins with lab-made proteins.
“We don’t have information on whether consuming Solein is healthier than eating a plant-based, unprocessed food diet,” said Lindberg.
He said that clinical studies are needed on lab-based proteins because even though consumers may read the ingredients of a product, they have no information on the production process.
Referring to studies like the Harvard Health Publishing, which has found that some soy products contain harmful chemicals, Vainikka sees Solein as a healthier non-animal protein alternative.
Still, Lindberg questions whether eliminating animal proteins will help us become more sustainable. He said that animal products could be produced without harming the environment, though it is costlier for the farmer.
Lindberg compared sustainable animal products with the environmental impact of consuming blueberries in Norway.
“Blueberries in Norway are imported, which means they come by airplane. Has anyone measured the footprint of the process of getting blueberries in Norwegian stores?” said Lindberg.
Yet, Vainikka hopes that people will find Solein appealing not only because it uses natural elements but also because no animals are harmed in the process.
He also believes that people will prefer Solein’s neutral taste over pea protein, for example, which tastes like peas. Vainikka thinks that Solein’s neutral taste makes it easy to add to products like yogurt without changing the taste of yogurt.
“It doesn’t have a taste; some taste a bit of carrot, some taste a bit of popcorn; it’s very mild, and those who are experts in the area of profiling taste say that it’s neutral,” said Vainikka.
But what do our current food trends show?
Phil Lempert, editor of Supermarketguru.com and CEO at Consumer Insight Inc., said that non-animal proteins (including air-based proteins) align with the trend of healthy eating, as long as the ingredient statement on the products is simple.
“The problem of Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger is that you read those plant-based ingredients, and you don’t want to eat that,” he said.
Lempert explained that for those who read product labels, Solein would have to match their health expectations to become successful. He described it as similar to people who don’t buy products with GMOs.
However, for a new product to become the norm, it has to prove its multiple benefits.
Dr. Tassos Kyriakides, President of the Board of the Association of Yale Alumni in Public Health, said that to become successful, air-based proteins have to show that they benefit both the individual and public health while addressing the sensitive planetary issues.
Dr. Morgaine Gaye, a Food Futurologist, sees the potential not only of the technology used to create air-based proteins but also using air as a food ingredient to alter food structures.
“Using air enables the supplier to use less raw ingredients. For example, with chocolate, as the commodity prices of the cow go up, we can use 3-D printing to print beautiful lattice shapes, which makes you feel as a consumer that you’re getting more for your money,” said Morgaine.
Morgaine explained that if getting fewer calories, better texture, and using less planetary resources are enough to convince the customer to pay the producer more for less, then adding air to food may change the way people eat.
But Morgaine also said that using air as a primary ingredient to produce air-based proteins can create food for people who can’t afford it.
In this case, it’s the technology that’s expensive, not the raw ingredients, she explained.
But can air-based proteins compete with animal proteins on the market?
Ted Hopper, CEO of Greensbury farms, an organic farm that sells meat and seafood, said that he does not find non-animal protein alternatives a threat to his business because customers who are concerned about their diet may find unappealing a long ingredient list such as the one on Beyond Meat.
“Organic customers have a negative response to lab-grown meat,” said Hopper.
When asked whether animal proteins pose a threat to the environment, Hopper explained that conventionally raised mass-produced beef or chicken have a negative impact on animal welfare, the environment, and human health.
“Pesticides disrupt the natural ecosystem,” he said.
But Hopper said that his organic farm has, at times, been carbon neutral if not carbon negative, making small-scale organic farming beneficial to the environment.
“Maintaining the soil, rotating crops and agriculture, allowing right overgrowth, as an entire ecosystem are carbon neutral. We source all of our livestock proteins directly from the US, and that has an environmental benefit; products are traveling less,” he said.
However, Hopper sees the possibility of lab-grown meat helping with world hunger.
“Organic farming can’t supply the world,” he said.
This is why Vainikka imagines a world where Solein and other non-animal proteins dominate.
“We are just in the beginning. What we are doing now is the simplest form; we are growing single cells, but you can see these cells as factories (they can produce many different kinds of things); though we might need to genetically engineer the organism, different kinds of proteins could be produced,” said Vainikka.
But despite Hopper’s and Vainikka’s sustainable practices, Sihi, the Emory environmentalist, warns that we need more than innovation to save the planet. We also need to reduce emissions from fossil fuels.
“There is no one-step solution; it’s not enough,” she said.
Yet, Morgaine sees food innovation as the start of the different roles that natural elements, including air, may play in our future diets and in becoming more sustainable.
She believes that as people are drawn closer to nature, they will crave foods from nature, foods with “air,” foods that will appeal to their senses through taste, texture, and sound.
P.S. This was my journalism master thesis, and I think it earned a spot in my blog. Special thanks to all the people who helped me complete this. And especially to my sources, my parents and the Onassis Foundation.