Will Space-Age Protein Powder Change the Future of Food?

On the corner of 51st and Seventh Avenue in Manhattan, the aroma of charcoal-​burnished lamb hangs enticingly in the winter air above Midtown’s halal carts. Alas, I can’t stop for a snack. I have a reservation down the block at Le Bernardin, that temple of pristine French seafood helmed by Eric Ripert. Tonight, however, I’m not going for the delicate skate wing or sea trout. Ripert is the first chef in New York City to be cooking with Nature’s Fynd, which is not seafood at all, but a protein fermented from an extremophilic fungal microbe (Fusarium strain flavolapis or “yellow stone,” nicknamed Fy) discovered by NASA-funded scientists in an acidic hot spring in Yellowstone National Park.

“I really think it’s fantastic,” says chef Ripert, as my first course arrives—a tender puck of Yukon Gold potatoes and Niçoise and Castelvetrano olives, surrounded by a tomato sauce vierge, topped with a thick blanket of Nature’s Fynd cream cheese. “We have to create food that can feed the planet,” Ripert continues. “But what’s most important for me is that it is delicious.” It is delicious, the fungal cream cheese possessing the richness and light acidity of mascarpone and the internal froth of Swiss meringue. The dish pairs impeccably with a Roussette du Bugey from the Jura. I follow it with a chocolate waffle cone filled with an airy hazelnut praline mousse whipped from powdered Fy. My meal concludes with a summery fig leaf ice cream churned from Nature’s Fynd cream cheese.

I am preoccupied with the future of food, likely owing to a predilection for what I believe is referred to as “doomscrolling.” As any climate doomscroller can tell you, our food system is a disaster. Agriculture is responsible for about a third of human-made greenhouse gas emissions. Over half of the earth’s habitable land is already being farmed, and estimates predict that food production will need to increase another 70 percent by 2050 to feed our projected population of 10 billion. Raising animals to meet our protein needs is a catastrophe, but recent market data shows that we are already cooling on the novelty of plant burgers that bleed faux blood. More vitally, plant-based meat is still made of plants. Its production requires enormous quantities of the resources on which our burning planet is running short: topsoil, water, and fossil fuels.

Ripert is so taken with Fy as part of the solution to all of this—“A single sheet tray can produce the protein of 20 chickens!” he exclaims as I sip the last of my Sauternes—that he’s added it to the menu at the nearby casual cafe, L’Ami Pierre, as well. Nature’s Fynd cream cheese and breakfast patties are now available at Whole Foods. Chef Alexander Plotkin, an alumnus of Copenhagen’s Noma and the culinary director of Nature’s Fynd, tells me he’s used Fy to make sausages and crab cakes, both delicious.

I’m delighted to report that recently, my scrolling has veered ever so slightly away from doom. Fungal protein is just the tip of the (albeit melting) iceberg. I’ve read of a California company making meat from microbes. And of another, named Solar Foods, in the Finnish suburb of Espoo, backed by 70 million euros of venture capital, that has patented a technology for making protein from a hydrogenotrophic bacterial microbe by feeding it air. This sounds improbable to me. Even Fy needs sugar to survive! But the Finnish microbe, discovered by one of the company’s founders in a nearby forest, apparently turns carbon dioxide—which we create by breathing and need to remove from the atmosphere—​into food! It is a claim bold enough to inspire me to board a budget flight for Helsinki.

I will gloss over the myriad discomforts of a multicity transatlantic red-eye flight on Condor air without movie screens or Wi-Fi. I will focus on the silver lining: 12 hours to research microbes! Here is what I learned: Microbes, which are about one hundred times too small for the human eye to see, were discovered by a Dutchman named Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, whose hobby was peering at things through a homemade microscope. One day, in 1676, he described his amazement, gazing at magnified plaque he’d scraped from his teeth: “I…saw, with great wonder…many very little living animalcules, very prettily a-moving.” These graceful animalcules were, he wrote: “so small, in my sight, that I judged that even if 100 of these very wee animals lay stretched out one against another, they could not reach to the length of a grain of coarse sand.” The 19th-century British doctor Joseph Lister invented antiseptic medicine after inferring that infection was caused by microbes. Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch credited microbes with various illnesses, plus bread rising and beer brewing. All microbes can be grouped into several families, including bacteria, archaea, fungi, algae, protozoa, and viruses….

Is this getting boring? Perhaps because you aren’t in the Frankfurt airport at 5 a.m. with a crick in your neck. I’ll speed up: Over the ensuing centuries, research demonstrated that some microbes help (like those that digest our food and ferment our wine and cheese) and some hurt. The human body hosts trillions of microbes. In the 1960s, NASA did extensive research into how microbes could help astronauts in deep space survive in a closed system—without inputs from Earth. One of NASA’s most exciting discoveries was microbes that could turn common gases, like hydrogen and carbon dioxide, into protein—that building block of life. The research was tabled for 50 years because space shuttles didn’t go far enough for it to be needed. Now that our home planet has been identified as one with finite resources, a hungry populace, and a rapidly warming surface—credibly mimicking the conditions of a spaceship in deep space—NASA’s research has been dusted off.

I land in Helsinki, quickly making my way to Allas Sea Pool, an urban spa in Helsinki’s central port, to recover from the indignities of travel. After relaxing in a Finnish sauna, I yield to the bullying of two old ladies in Speedos and woolen shower caps, and plunge directly into the Baltic Sea. I admit that it was restorative, though I quibble with one of the women’s assertions that the plunge would feel like “two glasses of Champagne.” Thankfully, they serve Champagne at Ateljé Finne, where I adjourn to ruminate, over lamb tartare with egg yolk crème, about what I will learn at Solar Foods the next day regarding the likelihood that my future grandchildren will know the pleasures of tartare and cold wine. Did you know that kiddos! (spelled kiitos) is “thank you” in Finnish?

The following morning, donning the unofficial Finnish uniform of a wool beanie, a puffer coat, and a backpack, I make my way to a small factory 20 minutes from my hotel at Helsinki’s central train station. Inside an unmarked door I stumble into a clutch of scientists in crisp white lab coats emblazoned with the motto “Liberator of Protein Production” staring through microscopes, like so many modern-day van Leeuwenhoeks. I’m shown a petri dish, full of clusters of the microbe itself—on its patent it is referred to as VTT-E-193585, but here it goes by “Solein.” Squinting, I see little clumps of a warm saffron yellow, far too microbial-looking to suggest lamb or egg yolk crème. The lovely color, though, is natural and comes from carotenoids, a valuable micronutrient. Solein is otherwise 65 to 70 percent protein (including the nine essential amino acids); 5 to 8 percent fat; 10 to 15 percent dietary fiber; and 3 to 5 percent mineral nutrients like iron, plus B vitamins. I’m ushered to a contraption that reminds me of the machine that produces Everlasting Gobstoppers in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, through whose porthole I observe a thick yellow liquid bubble and burp. I’m watching a process 20 times more efficient than photosynthesis, by which Solein uses renewable energy to turn hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide into a replacement for eggs, milk, cheese, mayonnaise, and meat.

In a test kitchen next door, several members of Solar Foods’ C-suite, including its CEO Pasi Vainikka, stand somewhat stiffly beside product developers Anna Häkämies and Sini Möttönen. There’s also a bearded chef named Sebastian Borg, and on a stainless-steel prep table in front of them sits a little glass beaker of fine saffron powder. As I eagerly tap a spoon into the beaker to taste the remarkable innovation, I’m reminded by one of the executives that anything that happens to me as a result of tasting Solein is not the responsibility of Solar Foods. It seems that in the EU, any food not “consumed to a significant degree by humans in the EU before May 15, 1997,” must be granted the status of “novel food,” certifying that it is safe to eat, poses no risk to public health, and isn’t nutritionally inferior to what it might replace. According to these guidelines, Solein isn’t yet technically a food. But why have I traveled all this way if not to take risks? I close my eyes, put the powder to my nose and inhale lightly to ensure I fully appreciate its aroma compounds, then put it to my tongue. Solein tastes faintly of porcini mushroom, with a clear, pleasing note of umami. I’m pleasantly surprised at the powder’s rich earthiness. Then, I break out into a violent cough, causing a momentary panic and the exhortation by the executives to “please not die.” I assure everyone I’m fine. I just got some microbes down the wrong pipe.

I’m next shown photos of Solein that has been put through something called an extruder to give it a meaty texture. It looks like meat. But there’s none to taste. Today, we’ll be working on substituting Solein for egg. Chef Borg hands me a bowl containing a viscous mixture of Solein, rapeseed oil, water, and salt. I dip a new spoon in and experience the mouthfeel and fleshy flavor of raw egg. Häkämies and Möttönen admit that they haven’t figured out how to make the egg coagulate yet, but it’s in the works. Borg tips the Solein egg into a bowl of flour and kneads it into pasta dough the deep yellow of 20-yolk tagliatelle dough. He passes it to me to feel. It has the pliability of Silly Putty. Next is Solein cream cheese, which is creamy and rich, again with umami undertones, and made with homogenized Solein instead of heavy cream. “Our gold standard was Philadelphia cream cheese,” Häkämies and Möttönen confess. I would happily spread the microbial proxy on a bagel. To demonstrate Solein cheese’s versatility, Borg uses it like mascarpone, mixing it into a pasta filling alongside roasted wild yellowfoot mushrooms and spinach. I’m invited to join him in filling rounds of pasta and folding them into tortellini. As we fold, we chat about restaurants we’ve cooked in. It strikes me that even though our main ingredient came from a lab, we are engaging in a culinary ritual as old as time, making light conversation while filling dough. I enjoy the familiar wild forest smell of roasting mushrooms as Borg pulls a tray from the oven to toss with a Solein milk–potato skin foam to sauce the pasta. We eat plates of supple tortellini, which is savory, creamy, and mushroomy, and immediately filling. Häkämies mentions that this might be because Solein itself is a nutritional powerhouse of iron, B vitamins, dietary fiber, fat, and, of course, protein. By the time I’ve cleaned my little plate, I’ve additionally consumed selenium, vitamin K, and vitamin D, all of which were chosen to create a nutritionally complete lunch. “Nutrition is something we really focus on,” Vainikka remarks. “It’s not only to make protein, but to make a variety of foods that are well-rounded and nutritious.”

For Solein-as-mayonnaise, Borg whisks the Solein egg with lime and lemon zest into a thick, creamy emulsion. He dollops it over a salad of roasted brussels sprouts and apples, where it brings to mind a citrusy ranch. I’d mentioned having found the idea of Solein ice cream, of which I’d seen a photo on Instagram, particularly enticing. Lunch is rounded out by little silver coups of it, scented with makrut lime. I’m full and the sun is setting. But Häkämies provides me with a list of other things Solein can be: yogurt, smoothies, scrambled eggs, falafel, burgers, charcuterie, protein bars, cereal, and soups.

As I ride the train back toward Helsinki, with perhaps just enough light left in the sky to peruse the all-black capsule collection at Nomen Nescio, I muse over whether my hope in humanity’s future has been restored. “Our goal isn’t to replace farming completely,” a Solar Foods spokeswoman had told me. “It’s to give the land a chance to recover by easily replacing something resource-​intensive with something that isn’t. We see farms and bioreactors coexisting.” It is a hopeful vision indeed. The company is seeking GRAS (Generally Recognized As Safe) status, which could see food made from Solein land on US shelves in 2024. And Solar Foods is currently developing a portable bioreactor that could brew Solein in space for NASA’s Artemis mission, which will send the first woman of color to the moon, and for future missions to Mars. When the Artemis astronauts are in orbit, I’ll relish knowing they won’t suffer freeze-dried astronaut ice cream, but be offered a creamy Solein version, perhaps perfumed with makrut lime. And while the 1 percent aren’t those about whose climate-change-induced starvation I sit up at night worrying, one can’t deny that Solein’s deliciousness and versatility is a boon for patrons of Axiom’s Philippe Starck–designed space hotel, scheduled to open next year. Whether or not a Champagne cork pops in zero gravity, at least each of the hotel’s $55-million​-paying guests will be able to toast their grand adventure with wild mushroom Solein tortellini.

Written by Tamar Adler

For Vogue

Share This Read