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Fungi & Food, The Future of Sustainability

March 3, 2023

Fungi, mushrooms, mycelium, and food. Maybe you don’t associate all of these things together (or maybe you do, and you’re thinking of the terrifying reality of The Last of Us, currently airing on HBO), but the future of managing food waste and creating a more sustainable food system is intrinsically tied to fungi. Rest assured, fungi won’t be turning anyone into zombies any time soon, but they will be incorporated into more aspects of our food system

So why fungi? Not quite animal and not quite plant, fungi is an incredibly complex living system of threads connecting trees and foliage across miles and miles of land. It’s the communication network of the natural world, and vital in transferring nutrients across biomes and keeping soil viable. Fungi also produce a fruit, known as mushrooms. 

Edible mushrooms are a great source of iron, zinc, and vitamin B-12, and take little resource input for major nutritional output. They can’t replace meat entirely as a protein source, but fungi are a terrific choice to incorporate into any diet in regard to resource preservation. Not only are mushrooms great as a food, but soon they will be a great addition to your food. 

A food technology startup out of Israel, Mush Food, is adding fungi to meat in a 50/50 combination that preserves and enhances the flavors and texture of meat that carnivores crave while reducing the ecological footprint of meat in half. The product they are developing, 50CUT, effectively mimics the meat it is combined with, “Once you add 50CUT to ground beef, it acts like a sponge and absorbs all the water, juiciness, fat, aromatic compounds, and assumes the visual appearance of the beef. From the full organoleptic and nutritional perspectives, 50CUT functions as the perfect complement to beef, enhancing its taste.”

Leather made from Reishi mushrooms.

What about fungi’s ability to grow into predefined molds? It’s a resilient and malleable thing, so biotechnologist Akram Zamani and her team are using fungi to break down food waste and turn the result into something brand new! Food produces an immense amount of greenhouse gases when it rots in a landfill, and decomposing food makes up a majority of the product found in U.S. landfills. By utilizing the fungus Rhizopus delemar and stale bread crumbs, Zamani’s team was able to turn the gelatinous product into yarn to spin into fabrics and create synthetic leather.

The fungi are grown underground, using minimal land, energy, and water, and as you’ll read in a moment, using fungi’s incredible ability to grow into a mold, it grows to mimic the rich umami texture and flavor of its partnered beef. Sound weird? It is, but when this (eventually, give it a few years) hits the consumer market, give it a try! It’s a low-impact way to enjoy meat in a way that’s more natural than any of the other beef alternatives on the market. 

There is already one business on the market, Mycoworks, producing ready-to-buy product from fungi alternatives. From consumer reports, this vegan leather matches, if not exceeds, the quality and aesthetic of its competition. While mycelium (the threads of fungi that create the frame in which the vegan leather is made) won’t be replacing cows or plastic alternatives any time soon, the plant leather has made a splash with its incomparable production speed and sustainability. 

While We Don’t Waste works hard to recover local food excess, there is not much we can do about the bits and pieces of inedible food that slip through the cracks in your home or in your office. Imagine a future where food waste could be picked up, and turned not only into compost, but into clothing and furniture indistinguishable from its animal-borne or plastic counterparts. How exciting! Fewer greenhouse gas emissions from food in our landfills, and responsible, low-climate-impact items for use every day. Just from your food scraps!

As a food, mushrooms are an awesome addition to a diet, and as a tool, fungi are key in breaking down food waste and unsustainable production practices. It’s an exciting time in the growth and development in sustainable food system practices.