More and more people want protein-rich meat substitutes. Startups are trying to develop alternatives that are both climate-friendly and healthy. Food from air and sun – is that possible?

The powder is mustard-yellow and reminiscent of ground turmeric. But Solein, as the dust-fine invention is called, is neither a plant nor a spice. Rather, it’s a protein powder for supplementing food, made from air, microbes and solar energy – and intended to serve as a basis for replacing meat and other foods in the future.

The goal of the Finnish start-up Solar Foods is to revolutionize the global food supply and protect the climate at the same time with its product, which has been created virtually from nothing. Sounds too good to be true? In Singapore, the powder is set to hit the market as early as 2024 – it would be the first country in the world to do so.

Substitute for protein sources such as meat, milk, soybeans or lentils.

Solein needs no farming and is simultaneously being hailed as a substitute for protein sources such as meat, milk, soybeans or lentils. A novel alternative to animal or vegetable protein, in other words. According to the company, it contains 65 to 70 percent protein, 10 to 15 percent fiber, 5 to 8 percent fat and 3 to 5 percent minerals, as well as iron and B vitamins. It apparently does little to change the taste of food: the powder is said to have a delicate umami flavor, which is often compared to “spicy.”

Bacteria are fed, then harvested

But how does it work? “Basically like a brewery,” Pasi Vainikka, co-founder and CEO of Solar Foods, tells Deutsche Presse-Agentur. He says the process resembles the fermentation process used to make wine or beer. But instead of sugar, the bacteria feed primarily on carbon dioxide, dissolved hydrogen and nitrogen using renewable electricity.

This would “feed” them to form amino acids, vitamins, fats and carbohydrates. “When it is time to harvest the brine, the excess water is removed and it is dried into a protein-rich powder without harming plants or animals,” the website says.

But what are the advantages over farming? “Conventional food production wastes resources such as water, chemicals and animal feed at an unsustainable and unreasonable rate,” the Finnish inventors write. Their product, they say, requires only a fraction of those resources to produce the same amount of protein. The process is also 20 times more efficient than photosynthesis, which plants use to convert energy into food, they say.

Origins in space travel

The first Solein factory is currently being built in Vantaa, Finland. Commercial production is expected to begin next year. “In Singapore, it will then be offered in selected restaurants,” says Vainikka. At first, it will be in limited form until production really gets going. The Southeast Asian business metropolis is the “perfect hub” to test the new product, Vainikaa is convinced.

The fact that the regulatory approval time was shorter than in other countries simply had to do with the great efficiency of the city-state. But Solar Foods expects other markets to follow soon, including the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Startup from wants to revolutionize greentech products

The Nordic startup is not the only one looking to revolutionize the food industry thanks to sustainable cleantech products. Air Protein from the U.S. works in a similar way, producing ready-made meat substitutes instead of a powder, also using “air fermentation.” The British-Dutch start-up Deep Branch has developed “Proton” – a high-protein powder made from CO2 for the animal feed industry.

The makers drew inspiration from Nasa’s space program in the 1970s: Back then, researchers were already looking for a way to convert elements in the air that astronauts breathed into protein. The process was shelved and forgotten – until now.
Revolutionizing nutrition while protecting the climate

All of these innovative approaches are about protein and alternatives to animal products in particular, which are at the top of the list of protein-rich foods – especially dairy products, eggs and meat. “Protein is an important macronutrient and an essential structural component of our cells,” explains Kim Jung Eun of the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of Singapore.

In many places, people lack access to protein

Protein is very important for the body: Since it does not have a protein store, the cells must be regularly supplied with the macromolecule. The German Nutrition Society (DGE) recommends a daily intake of 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight for adults under 65.

Protein is needed, among other things, to build muscles, bones, skin and hair, but also enzymes and hormones, as well as for a healthy immune system. Vegetarians and vegans mainly turn to legumes, vegetables such as broccoli, chia seeds or quinoa as protein suppliers.

“Already today, protein supply is not guaranteed in many regions of the world, and climate change and population growth will further exacerbate this problem,” says protein researcher Isabel Muranyi of the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging in Freising, Germany. “I think conventional cultivation should be increasingly supplemented by closed systems in the future.”

Advantages of bacteria compared to microalgae

Advantages of bacteria compared to microalgae include high product yield and climate-independent production, she said. She does not see any dangers in such techniques, as long as it is ensured that no toxic substances are produced. However, people with a tendency to allergies should be careful.

Protein produced from air and green electricity is something completely new. There is a lot going on in the food industry – whether this will really revolutionize the world’s nutrition remains to be seen.