Precision Fermentation Provides Nutrition Without Compromise

Advances in fermentation technology offer new approaches to improve flavor and texture, while improving overall nutrition. 

By Ryan Slattery  


There is a science to food. A challenging, yet delicate, balance of ingredients and methods to developing foods that are not only delicious and nutritious but also crave-worthy, that will have consumers coming back for more. That’s where Sarah Corwin, Ph.D, LDN, a Senior Principal Food Scientist at Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition (AHN), and her team come in. They specialize in finding solutions to food products that advance flavor and texture in a way that results in food that’s more nutritious for people.

What Corwin does–as an expert in carbohydrate chemistry, vegan mimetics, and nutrition–is to research and develop products by testing and monitoring how ingredients interact with each other to improve the quality of foods.

Just one of the ways Corwin and her team at AHN work to create ingredients to improve a variety of foods is through a process called precision fermentation. “What we’re looking to accomplish with precision fermentation is to develop ingredients that are produced in a sustainable way that can contribute beneficially to taste, texture and nutrition,” Corwin says. “It’s a very targeted way to produce ingredients. It can be more cost effective and oftentimes the ingredients are more functional as well.”

Similar to how bread and beer are made using fermentation where the yeast feeds on sugars and starches to produce byproducts such as carbon dioxide (which is what makes a slice of bread fluffy and spongy), food innovators at AHN are studying how microorganisms interact with certain agents to produce beneficial qualities in other products.

In fact, AHN’s oldest and most widely used ingredient, monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a result of precision fermentation. MSG is the purest form of umami and delivers delicious savory flavor to a variety of foods. Since umami’s discovery and the development of MSG by Ajinomoto over 110 years ago, MSG has been used safely as a food ingredient and seasoning around the world. AHN manufactures its MSG through advanced precision fermentation technology, using quality ingredients such as locally grown Iowa corn. During this process, glucose is fermented and the result is MSG and water. MSG is purified through a filtering process. Finally, the water is evaporated through a drying process leaving only a pure white powder of MSG. MSG has two-thirds less sodium than table salt and can enhance the flavor of food products while decreasing the need for salt. “That’s our goal,” says Corwin, “to produce ingredients that improve nutrition.”

Fermentation technologies can be used to produce new ingredients that enable food scientists and product developers to create delicious foods that don’t compromise on taste, texture or nutrition. And food scientists are using these tools to improve everything from snacks to plant-based foods.  

While plant-based meat was a highly anticipated trend in recent years, recent sales figures show that consumers are not flocking to plant-based meat alternatives the way the industry predicted they would. A recent study conducted by AHN found that taste and texture are tied for the top issue consumers have with plant-based products. The respondents’ second biggest concern was nutrition.  

“The goal [of the study] was to understand what it was that these individuals wanted,” Corwin explains. “We found taste and texture were the top issues for the Gen Z and Millennial consumers that were eating plant-based, imitation meat. And texture actually scored higher as a priority for consumers than taste.”

By studying how enzymes form bonds between proteins, Corwin says scientists can create a variety of textures to make plant-based alternatives more closely resemble various meats. Plant-based products often use TVP (Textured Vegetable Protein) as a bulking and textural agent, and methylcellulose as a binder. But scientists at AHN have found new protein binding systems can replace methylcellulose and create realistic texture profiles for eggs, fish and seafood, as well as red meats like lamb, all while boosting protein content.  

Despite assumptions from marketers and retailers that consumers want “clean label” food products, the AHN study also overwhelmingly showed that most consumers don’t mind a longer ingredient statement if it improves the product. Eighty-seven percent of respondents said they would purchase a plant-based imitation meat with a longer ingredient list if it improved the product. 

Often plant-based products, as well as snacks, are very high in sodium. So, scientists are looking at how to improve nutritional value while still maintaining the same flavors. A lot of times that’s accomplished by reducing sodium and amping up the umami flavor and kokumi components. 

“Umami is an essential component to developing food that’s craveable and delicious, especially in plant-based meat,” Corwin says. Umami elevates, enriches and improves meatiness, while kokumi is a taste sensation that brings depth and richness, and improves mouth feel. Paired together well, the food will taste better.

Using cheese popcorn as an example, Corwin says cheese powders often contribute a large quantity of the sodium to the product, but are necessary for flavor. But scientists at AHN are able to use solutions produced using precision fermentation techniques to maintain flavor and texture, while creating a more nutritious product by adding a combination of umami and kokumi solutions to help reduce the overall amount of cheese powder needed.

“It doesn’t taste like it’s missing anything but it’s more nutritious,” Corwin says. “That’s our goal.”