A waste product from the mushroom industry is being put to use as a natural shelf-life extender for processed food products.
New Brunswick-based food technology company Chinova Bioworks is using a dietary fibre and antioxidant extracted from white button mushrooms called chitosan to produce its trademarked product, Chiber.
Why it matters: The stem of the mushroom is often discarded, but this process allows it to have a use and to create new value for mushroom growers.
“Consumers are more aware of what they’re eating and looking for healthy, easy-to-understand ingredients — things with chemical-sounding names are pariahs,” says Chinova co-founder and Chief Operating Officer David Brown. “At the same time, we want ready-to-eat foods that are convenient and healthy, but this means they require some kind of preservative to keep them fresh and prevent spoilage through bacteria, yeast and mould.”
That’s echoed by Rory Francis, Executive Director of the Prince Edward Island BioAlliance, a not-for-profit established in 2004 to encourage commercialization of bioscience technologies and applications.
“Twenty years ago, emphasis was on how good things tasted and looked; now it’s on what’s in my food and that’s pushing food companies around the world to look at their ingredient mix including how they preserve their products,” he says, adding the global sustainability mandate is also driving the shift towards natural product-based chemistry. “These are big drivers for Chinova and others in this space and in the last five years, it has become obvious that this kind of technology platform is needed and can make a difference.”
Brown and Chinova co-founder Natasha Dhayagude were working with chitosan for other applications when they discovered it was an undeveloped opportunity for the food and beverage sector. This led to extensive work over the last three years to establish its effectiveness and how to best extract the fibre and integrate it into food and drink products.
“It has to tick a lot of boxes — it has to be healthy, natural, work well, be affordable and have no sensory impact on the food,” Brown says.
The liquid extract destroys bacterial cell walls in a wide range of bacteria, yeasts and moulds, is fully soluble and can be customized to target specific micro-organisms that cause spoilage. Labelled as mushroom fibre or extract, it can’t be seen, smelled or tasted in food or drinks.
A welcome side benefit to Chinova’s innovation is that it also creates new value for mushroom growers. That’s because traditionally, the cap is sold whereas the stem is sent to compost or landfill — so Chinova uses that material as feedstock for Chiber, extracting one kilogram of chitosan fibre per 10 kilograms of mushroom stems.
Not only is this diverting food waste from landfill, but in a sector as cost competitive as mushroom production, being able to add value for farmers is a win-win, Brown believes. A few mushroom farms in the Maritimes currently supply stems, but they’re always looking for more farmer suppliers, especially in Ontario, he says.
With regulatory approval in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, Chinova’s most receptive customers to date are manufacturers of ready-to-drink teas, juices, sodas and carbonated energy and sports drinks, or local craft beverages like kombucha that have an even shorter shelf life. Dairy and plant-based dairy alternatives are also a growing market segment, and future expansion is anticipated into sauces, spreads and baked goods that currently use a lot of chemical preservatives.
“We’re able to match what chemical preservatives do, but there is a small premium for our product; part of our business has been to figure out who is willing to pay a bit more for a better product,” he says.
Key to their early success has been support from various accelerators, particularly the PEI BioAlliance and its Emergence Incubator. They were also part of the world’s first synthetic biology accelerator, IndieBio, which was accompanied by a $100,000 U.S. investment from venture capital firm SOSV, and received some funds from Guelph-based Bioenterprise.