Fermentation? Synthetics? Plant? Insects? The low down on complementary nutrition


Every year the world’s population grows by an average of 83 million people. This means that by 2050 there’ll be an estimated two billion more people on earth to feed. 

With this increase in population comes a rise in different forms of malnutrition. One out of every nine people is undernourished, and at the same time, adult obesity is increasing , affecting one in eight adults globally.

The need for high quality nutrition, particularly protein, will be greater than ever. Withconsumers’ tastes, diets and preferences evolving, plant, insect, algae and fermentation-produced nutrition is seen by many as part of the answer.

At Fonterra, we call this category complementary nutrition.

In a nut shell, it’s about taking the goodness of plants, insects, algae, dairy and animal proteins, and using different types of technology to make nutritious food.

These ingredients are not particularly new, neither is some of the technology.  Across the world, a number of start-ups, research institutes and established food businesses are already active in this sector.

Plant-based nutrition

Humans have eaten plants, seeds and nuts since…, well since ever. Like us, many consumers believe in the incredible health benefits from eating a varied diet. More than ever we’re seeing people prioritising plants. This doesn’t mean everyone’s stopping eating animal-based nutrition, many consumers just want to increase the amount of plant and plant-based proteins they’re eating.

Alternative beverages have been around for decades. When people started ordering soy lattes in the early 2000’s there were very few alternative beverages on the market. Now there’s an explosion of choice and brands, with almond, coconut, oat, hemp and pea protein to name but a few.

Moving away from beverages there’s plant-based “seafood” and burgers entering the market. These are foods that aim to have a similar taste and texture to animal nutrition, but are made from plants.

Nutrition from algae

We’ve been eating sushi wrapped in seaweed and adding spirulina to our shakes for years, but algae offers the world of a lot of untapped potential. Whether it’s biofuel, food oils, nutritional supplements like DHAs or protein, algae is incredibly versatile. As consumers look at different sources of micro and macro nutrients, we believe you’ll see algae in more and more food.

US company iWi thinks the same. The desert isn’t where you’d expect to find pools of sea water but in the New Mexican desert that’s exactly what you’ll find. iWi is growing protein rich algae that they believe could be part of the answer to feed an extra two billion mouths. 


Nutrition from insects

The thought of eating insects may make some stomachs churn but it’s been happening around the world for centuries, with around two billion people regularly eating them as a staple part of their diet.

There are currently over 1,900 different types of edible insects, with beetles, caterpillars, bees, ants, grasshoppers and crickets among the most popular. As populations rise, insects are another source of potential nutrition, providing high quality protein, fat, vitamins and minerals. Examples of this include Exo and their use of cricket powder in their range of protein bars.

Fermentation-produced nutrition

Fermentation is not new either – in fact it’s been used for thousands of years to preserve food, produce medicines such as insulin, vitamins, amino acids, enzymes, flavours, and of course brew beer. But what’s new, is the use of the technology to create food at scale.

Sometimes mistakenly called “synthetics”, fermentation-produced nutrition starts with the DNA of the component you’d like to create. Using sophisticated software and state-of-the-art automation, the DNA is 3D printed and grown in a number of strains – such as fungi or yeast. The strain that produces the best results is put into a fermentation tank, where it’s fed sugar until it ultimately produces the desired ingredient.

Depending on the ingredient produced, food manufactures or chefs can then include it in their products. Dairy in its totality has never been recreated in this way. To do this would require creating every single component in dairy individually, and then putting them together to replicate the nutrition, taste and functionality of dairy. It remains to be seen if this is possible, however there are companies working on this.

Some food producers, like us, see potential in exploring nutritional solutions that may ultimately complement their offerings. Tyson Foods, the second largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef and pork in the world has invested in Memphis Meats as well as plant based meat producer Beyond Meat.

The challenges many of these companies are focused on solving is how to scale up their processes to be able to make more at a smaller cost – the first chicken strip grown by Memphis Meats reportedly cost US$9,000 per pound.

What the future of food holds is intriguing.

That’s part of the reason why we’ve taken a minority stake in Motif Ingredients, a US-based food ingredients company. Motif will harness biotechnology and fermentation technology to re-create and sell animal proteins and food ingredients, including those similar to dairy ingredients.