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A protein ‘made from air’ makes global debut in Singapore

SINGAPORE – It doesn’t look particularly appetizing – a mustard yellow-hued powder with the texture of starch – but the ingredient that made its global debut in Singapore on Thursday is being touted as the latest breakthrough in food technology.

Produced from air, water, electricity and microbes by Finnish start-up Solar Foods, the substance can be used to make anything from bread to pasta. It had its first official tasting after Singapore approved the sale of products containing the ingredient last October.

The powder itself resembles turmeric and tastes like a light, nutty mix of cashews and almonds. It’s 65 per cent to 70 per cent protein, 5 per cent to 8 per cent fat and has a composition similar to that of dried soy or algae.

Solein, as it’s called, builds on a growing microbial fermentation trend. It’s made in a similar way as brewing beer. Instead of sugar, microbes feed on nitrogen and carbon dioxide, and begin to grow. Excess water is removed and then it’s dried, forming a powder. 

The technology’s gaining attention, even as investors cool on the broader alternative protein sector, given it has the potential to produce edible calories without farmland. Crop giant Archer-Daniels-Midland is lending its heft, announcing a strategic partnership this month with California company Air Protein to build and operate a commercial-scale plant.

It will take “a couple of decades” for food-from-air production volumes to have a real impact on the world, Solar Foods chief executive officer Pasi Vainikka said in an interview. “There’s a lot of interest and pull from the consumer, and that’s a positive.”

Solein won’t be widely available until 2024 at least when a small-scale proof-of-concept plant is fully operational. The glacial pace of approvals is one factor that’s slowing its rollout. Singapore is the only jurisdiction that’s given Solein the green light. Approval in the European Union isn’t expected before 2025, Mr Vainikka said.

For now, the Finnish firm is working with food companies and restaurants to incorporate the product in dishes, or as an alternative dairy ingredient. It’s also on a marketing blitz, releasing videos demonstrating the practical uses of Solein, including in ice cream and ravioli.

Solar Foods was a project spun out of a Finnish state-owned research institute in 2017. The company has raised about 105 million euros (S$152.5 million) in funding from firms including Agronomics and CPT Capital. It wants to raise more cash for a larger-scale commercial factory over the next three years. BLOOMBERG