Producing low-carb, protein-rich fungi flour.
There is no such thing as something from nothing, but Hyfé Foods, a startup at the forefront of alternative proteins, comes close. Co-founder Michelle Ruiz is a Carnegie Mellon-trained process engineer, with a decade of experience in manufacturing. When she walks around a factory, she knows where the opportunities lie—which, in Hyfé’s case, was in the industrial cooking water on its way down the drain. But rather than letting it go to waste, Ruiz and Co-founder Andrea Schoen, a bioengineer and registered patent agent, developed a process to harness its rich sugars to make fungi flour—a flexible, high-protein, low-carb substitute for traditional and alternative flours. By bringing together their combined understanding of factory processes and fermentation technology, they have pulled off a food-production magic trick with wide-ranging implications: an ultra-healthy protein grown without agriculture, with inputs that are not merely insulated from today’s commodity shocks, but affordable and carbon-neutral.
Hyfé Foods’ name comes from hyphae: the tip of the mycelium, or the roots of a mushroom, that conquers new territory. Mycelium can be grown in large bioreactors, where they form couscous-like pearls that are then dried and ground into flour. Beginning with common mushrooms like shiitake or oyster, the mycelium’s flavor and material properties can be controlled by changing the inputs—like the types of sugars used to feed them, the levels of oxygen, pH, and the temperature. ”The fungi act as a machine,” marvels Ruiz, “and so you’re putting sugar into this machine, pulling a couple of levers, and then outputting whatever you want from it—in our case, nutritious food.”
What doesn’t change is the mycelium flour’s health properties. Mycelium has as much protein as chicken, no refined carbs, is free of gluten and common allergens, and can be screened to eliminate further triggers for inflammation. Hyfé’s fungi flour is a uniquely flexible platform with neutral flavor, ready to be formulated into anything flour or powder is normally used for—from pastas and tortillas, to protein powders, shakes and snacks.
The trouble with mycelium production—before Hyfé, at least—was its price, water usage, and scalability. Like many of today’s alternative proteins, the need for high-quality raw sugar inputs comprises nearly half its cost, making it most likely to be found in a health food store with an eye-popping price tag. In an era of instability and uncertainty around the availability of commodities, that price was prohibitive—and going up. But by using up-cycled—or “valorized”— wasted sugar water from industrial food plants, Hyfe’s process is fully insulated from the commodity market. This is cooking water that has already been in contact with food and remains safe for consumption, and is teeming with valuable sugars.
Manufacturers typically pay for this water to be treated, often at a surcharge, at private or municipal plants. But for Hyfé’s proprietary process, ”these streams of water are absolute gold,” says Ruiz. They are not wastewater, but wasted sugar-water. As cost-negative inputs, they allow Hyfé’s superfood to be price-competitive, with the additional benefit of eliminating landfill inputs. “If we’re going to use sugar, why not use sugar that is thrown away in industry?,” says Ruiz. Hyfé plans to source their sugars by co-locating alongside food manufacturing partners eager to reduce wastewater treatment costs, water usage, and their carbon footprint.
At scale, the implications are revolutionary. “This is localized production of nutritious food that’s shielded from climate shocks,” says Ruiz. “It is healthy food production without agriculture.” While Hyfé plans to go to market with its branded fungi flour, to be used in consumer packaged goods, restaurants, and ready made meal services, its water valorization platform has the potential to transform global food production, allowing factory excess to be up-cycled into high-protein foods anywhere in the world.
But for Ruiz and Schoen, Hyfé’s mission is more personal. Like many, they have family members who live with chronic illness, and struggle to find healthy flour-based foods that are familiar and economical. “I don’t want my mother reminded of her health issues every time she eats soggy zoodles or weird-tasting bean pasta,” says Ruiz. Hyfé can control the flavor and material properties so it tastes and acts just like wheat. “It’s a carbohydrate and animal-free protein replacement that can be easily swapped into somebody’s regular diet and be at home in the center of the plate.”