Most alt-meats have an "it" ingredient that does the necessary work of emulating the satisfying taste and texture of meat. For Beyond Meat, it's mung bean protein; for Impossible Foods, it's soy leghemoglobin—an iron-containing molecule found in soy plants. For Prime Roots, the meat flavor in their products comes from koji, a Japanese fungus that's been a go-to ingredient in Asian cultures for centuries and is pivotal in the fermentation of soy sauce, sake, and miso. Its umami flavor (and robust protein content) make it an ideal candidate for producing a long list of plant-based meat alternatives. And that's why Kimberlie Le, co-founder and CEO of Prime Roots, started working with it back in 2017.
"We actually grow koji and use it as the base for all of our products, whereas other plant-based meat companies are using plant-based proteins that are heavily processed," Le tells Well+Good. "We've found that consumers are very wary about how hyper-processed a lot of these [alt-meat] products are—and so I wanted to make products that were meaty and really satisfy the carnivore's palette."
"We've found that consumers are very wary about how hyper-processed a lot of these products are—and so I wanted to make products that were meaty and really satisfy the carnivore's palette." —Kimberlie Le, co-founder and CEO of Prime Roots
Indeed, the very first ingredient in all of Prime Root's products is (you guessed it!) koji, and there aren't many that follow. The bacon, for example, only contains 11 total ingredients: water, coconut oil, konjac (a root vegetable commonly eaten in Japan), yeast, vegetable oil, natural smoke flavor, rice, sunflower lecithin, natural color, and salt. (By contrast, the Beyond Meat burger contains 22 and Impossible's patty contains 21). And despite the shorter ingredients list, Le is adamant that her brand's product is superior at mimicking the taste and texture of meat thanks to koji. "We actually grow the texture of meat within the koji. So microscopically, our products have the identical texture of meat."
Le felt that getting this texture just right should be a top priority for the company, which prides itself on asking consumers directly for what they want. "We did a big crowdsourcing initiative to see what types of products people really, really wanted to see. And in that voting process, people could write to us and we had over 8,000 people write in and rate what they want us to make. We found that people really wanted bacon, so we started making bacon," she says. (The bacon is $10, and currently ships to California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Idaho, Colorado, Utah. Other plant-based products are currently unavailable on the Prime Roots website.)
Beyond providing a tasty, less-processed alternative within the alt-meat category, Malina Malkani, RDN, creator of Solve Picky Eating, points out that the product is also a sustainable and cholesterol-free alternative to meat meat. "Compared to four slices of regular bacon, the same number of slices of Prime Roots’ plant-based bacon has about half the sodium and less than half the fat, but roughly the same amount of saturated fat," says Malkani. "Prime Roots plant-based bacon also offers four grams of fiber and no cholesterol for every four slices, whereas regular bacon contains no fiber and about 35 milligrams of dietary cholesterol in the same amount." (This is comparable to other alt-meat products, many of which also contain no cholesterol but some saturated fat and sodium.)
The fiber, she says, should really catch consumers' attention considering the fact that animal protein contains none of the digestion-promoting nutrient. "According to a 2016 study, koji is a fungus that functions as a prebiotic. Prebiotics not only serve as food for the friendly bacteria that live in our digestive tracts, but they also help promote overall human wellness in other ways, including possibly supporting the health of the cells that line the gut, helping promote increased calcium absorption, and decreasing the speed at which ingested foods cause spikes in our blood sugar levels," says Malkani.
"We've found that the consumer now really wants to be part of the journey in crafting the food system that they want."
Like other plant-based meats, Prime Roots also has a list of environmental wins going for it. "We are between 90 to 99 percent better for the planet than the animal-based product," says Le, adding that the company is set to do a full lifecycle analysis in the near future to confirm their low environmental impact. "There's no way in which we are worse [than animal farming] because, from a fundamental efficiency perspective, we're not feeding a cow 30 kilos of feed to get one pound out. We are the closest to a one-to one-ratio you can theoretically get in nature because fungi are at the bottom of the food chain. That's one of the reasons why it makes so much sense from an efficiency and sustainability perspective."
Le says that the rich, unprocessed nutritional profile, sustainability, and taste are the hallmarks of the Prime Root brand. And, ultimately, she hopes that we'll see a future when the food industry at large prioritizes the earth and health of the population as well. "Traditionally in food, product decisions are made from the top down. It really speaks to how companies aren't making products for people," says Le. "We've found that the consumer now really wants to be part of the journey in crafting the food system that they want."
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