What is the future of food? Looking at what’s on shelves and in freezers during a quick trip to the local grocery store, it’s easy to see that we are quickly moving towards a future of plant-based foods.
While they provide consumers more environmentally friendly food choices, many still have questions about the nutritional merits of these products. Are plant-based foods actually better for you? Can they meet the flavor standards of animal-based foods? Could they even be optimized to exceed the nutritional benefits of traditional products? Jon McIntyre, CEO of Motif FoodWorks, shared his company’s strategy for revolutionizing plant-based foods through microbes and fermentation and his views on the future of food and synthetic biology.
Taste, texture, and brain chemistry: what makes food good?
The data on consumer preferences for plant-based foods indicates that people would eat more plant-based foods if they were given more creative, delicious options. Bridging the taste gap is the first critical step in revolutionizing the plant-based space. To do this, Motif is taking an atypical deep-dive into the science and analysis of food.
The company is studying food through rheology, the science of how solids and liquids physically transform under stress and pressure. “This type of work is more like polymer science and soft matter physics than traditional science,” McIntyre explains. This approach lends itself to Motif’s research about how food is processed orally, exploring changes in texture and release of flavors and aromas to build a proprietary characterization of the complete sensory experience of taking just one, mouthwatering bite of food.
But the science behind savoring food isn’t limited to taste and texture; chemical reactions in the brain play a pivotal role in creating that “mouthwatering” experience. Motif is talking with prospective partners in the neurobiology space to examine the brain’s biochemical reactions while eating. This kind of brain mapping of the eating experience would be beyond even the most connoisseur of taste testers.
For McIntyre, these unique research avenues are valuable because traditional approaches to food science have hit a wall.
“Modern tools like molecular biology, fermentation, physical sciences, and neurobiology are needed to understand how to make plant-based foods that people really crave, versus, ‘I know I should eat this,” he says.
Making plant-based food craveable
Craveable plant-based food is one component of advancing a future of more sustainable food. However, craving a particular food doesn’t mean it’s healthy; in fact, it’s often the exact opposite. Solving this challenge in parallel is central to Motif’s mission. “Motif exists to make plant-based food taste better,” McIntyre says, “but also to make it more nutritious.” This foundational tenet directly addresses current consumer preferences, marked by increasing awareness about how the human body processes food and the connection between nutrition and overall health and longevity. In conjunction with creating a better eating experience, Motif aims to make plant-based foods a central component of the 21st-century food market — and it’s science of the 21st century that is moving them closer toward this ideal.
Leveraging synthetic biology platforms to create new forms of food
Fermentation and microbial engineering are two of the most versatile tools in the synthetic biology toolbox, and the power of these techniques lends itself to limitless possibilities for the future of food — including entirely novel menu items. “Could there be ‘center-of-the-plate’ new options with plant-based diets which are either plant protein forward or even GM [genetically modified] plant protein forward?” suggests McIntyre.
To achieve the company’s broad vision, Motif has partnered with synthetic biology giant, Ginkgo Bioworks, to leverage their biofoundries and discovery platforms. For McIntyre, this partnership sets Motif apart from other companies in the plant-based space, enabling unparalleled food innovation.
It’s one thing to engineer a microbe to improve plant-based burgers or plant-based cheese. But what else could this microbe do? What additional value could it bring to the table, so to speak? This question is critical for McIntyre, both in Ginkgo’s partnership and in his role as CEO. “Ginkgo is creating some great tech for us. Our job as food experts is to make it as valuable as possible and as impactful as possible,” says McIntyre.
Synthetic biology, meet food science. Food science, meet synbio.
Historically, it’s been somewhat taboo to talk about food and biotechnology together, GMOs being a primary example. But as McIntyre sees it, that paradigm may be changing.
“We’ve been working on food technology since the beginning of time. Fermentation [for beer or yogurt, for example], using salt to dehydrate foods… It’s okay to talk about food and science in the same breath,” he maintains.
At the same time, McIntyre thinks synthetic biology has a branding problem. He believes consumers may be more comfortable talking about optimizing fermentation microbes than using synthetic biology in their food. “The term ‘synthetic biology’ could create negative feelings akin to those around GMOs,” he says.
Beyond consumer sentiment, there are cultural differences between the food industry and the biotech community. McIntyre, who has years of experience in both of these spaces, believes that the food industry needs to better wield the potential of the controlled engineering of microbes to produce ingredients that are valuable for taste, nutrition, and sustainability — and entirely new food experiences.
Biotech innovators also need to understand that the food industry is conservative; change is slow and new brands rarely disrupt industry mainstays. For example, when plant-based foods first arrived and began to get market share, it was newer nontraditional food companies like their emergence was rooted in nontraditional, newer food companies— The major players in the industry didn’t develop their own offerings until plant-based products were firmly established. It’s a pattern that can be seen with plant-based meat: it took Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat to nudge Tyson Foods TSN +0.4% and Hormel HRL +0.2% to develop their own product lines. Even today, only half of major food brands have plant-based departments.
Where do we go from here?
The synthetic biology industry is dedicated to learning from nature and leveraging it to solve some of the greatest challenges facing our species. For McIntyre, it’s critical that the future of food also follows this path.
“I don’t know of anything more important than food and nutrition,” he says. “Why wouldn’t we use every tool possible to understand and give ourselves the best opportunities?”
The framework certainly exists. And if the food and biotechnology industries can effectively synergize their efforts, aspirations for healthier, more sustainable food, craved by consumers and producers alike, could truly become a mainstay of the future.
Follow me on Twitter at @johncumbers and @synbiobeta. Subscribe to my weekly newsletters in synthetic biology. Thank you to Fiona Mischel for additional research and reporting in this article. I’m the founder of SynBioBeta, and some of the companies that I write about are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference and weekly digest. Here’s the full list of SynBioBeta sponsors.1