special edition: Protein

Entrepreneur's frustration in marketing cheap protein for India's poor

By RJ Whitehead

- Last updated on GMT

Ethanol byproduct could go some way to providing nutrition for malnourished children
Ethanol byproduct could go some way to providing nutrition for malnourished children

Related tags Nutrition Food

There’s no shortage of children in India in need of cheap, high-quality and—crucially—vegetarian protein. Trouble is, there’s a chronic lack of companies wanting to produce it, and governments to promote it, even when its formulation could be massively more cost-effective than the alternatives.

That’s what Sydney-based future fuels company Alternative Fuel Corporation (AFC) is finding after hitting on a novel way to manufacture cheap, high-quality yeast protein from an ethanol byproduct. 

Yet, while wanting to use the technology to help India’s poor, AFC has so far only managed to generate interest from the feed industry in wealthier Thailand.

Yeast is an excellent natural, non-animal source of nutritional protein, vitamins and minerals, as well as a flavouring extract and enhancer. 

Recently, yeast cell wall components, which are byproducts of yeast extract production, have been found to have substantial immunostimulant and polysaccharide-based fat simulation properties.

But two factors have held back the development of yeast protein as a widespread functional food: the high cost of producing food-quality primary yeast; and the poor and variable quality of byproduct yeast from the brewing and distilling industries.

An unexpectedly nutritious byproduct

Enter AFC. When the company developed technology to increase the production capacity of ethanol plants, it also found the process would produce large volumes of human food-grade yeast that was rich in protein. 

The company doesn't build the plants; it leaves that to its clients' engineers. But for existing ethanol plants a retrofit is all that is needed for items such as aerobic fermenters and increased distillation to handle the higher volumes of ethanol production. When the yeast byproduct is centrifuged off the slurry, it is dried, and ready for use.

The concept of this technology is in the volume of yeast, first in the aerobic fermenter to about five times the volume of inoculum usually required. That increased volume goes into the ethanol fermenters, which hastens the fermentation time dramatically so a second daily ferment can be achieved in existing equipment. This forms the basis of AFC's recent patent.

Put simply, the production could be done at a cost low enough to allow the exploitation of yeast as a healthy food ingredient for the poor and malnourished. This was something Don McLellan, AFC’s chairman and managing director, calls a breakthrough.

Not only would this this co-production be “more competitive in the food-resources tug-of-war​”, it would also help ethanol, a green fuel, take on a new significance as AFC's technology would allow it to become more cost effective and more widely available.

Because at least 90% of the yeast from the process would have a direct beneficial role as a nutritional, functional or organoleptic food ingredient, AFC estimates that the raw material cost of derived products would be made similarly lower. 

This would generally drive the cost of such products to a lower level than comparable milk products, and closer to soy-derived ingredients—albeit with a number of advantages such as a bland flavour and aroma profile and better nutritional composition.

India, a largely observant Hindu nation where roughly one-third of the world’s malnourished children live, should perhaps be at the front of the queue among countries looking for ways to manufacture cheap vegetarian protein to feed their poor—while at the same time addressing their reliance on hydrocarbons. This is not yet the case.

All quiet on the industry front

In a bid to market AFC’s technology in India, McLellan initially approached some of the biggest food and chemical manufacturers present in India which he thought would be interested in one side of the process or the other. 

His pitch appears compelling: using a typical, 60m litre capacity ethanol plant, he says AFC’s technology could increase production by a further 40m litres while boosting ethanol revenue by A$20m (US$14.6m) based on typical market prices.

At the same time, the process could also produce 20m kilos of food-grade yeast each year, which could be used as part-substitution of milk proteins, egg substitutes and “chews​” containing the recommended daily intake of protein for children, among many other applications.

Because the co-produced yeast is a high-quality food commodity, at current market prices, it would add revenues of over A$50m for an ethanol plant—an additional, combined potential of more than A$70m​,” McLellan told FoodNavigator-Asia.

But yet there is corporate and government hesitancy even to discuss the idea.

In India there is a reluctance among the ethanol companies to alter their processes, even if this means using the same process albeit with different volumes.”

The food companies don’t want to be involved in ethanol, and the ethanol companies are worried about creating human foods​.”

AFC has also attempted to contact Annamrita, an NGO which claims to feed 1.2m meals a day to malnourished children in India, to highlight the extremely low cost of making the protein, but so far “hasn’t had one word in response​”.

Likewise, McLellan also been in touch with government agencies representing the sugar and food Industries but so far hasn’t received a reply. 

The government’s “apathy to learn and understand that India could produce so much good protein with not a great deal of capital expenditure is hard to believe​,” he said. 

Feed industry takes an interest

To address the concerns of ethanol companies worried about getting involved in human food production, AFC has now placed its focus on this segment, pushing the concept that the yeast from the process could initially be marketed as an “animal feed additive​” that would command a similar price to the food yeast.

Following this approach, the company has generated much more interest and has now found its first buyer. 

Believing that human food markets should be the ones being developed to help tackle the issue of malnutrition, McLellan has found it “all very frustrating​” that all the yeast is going to the animal feed market, not onto the plates of children in need. 

In Thailand, though, he has been finding a much better response from companies interested in human nutrition. 

It is still early days but [Thai companies] are thinking of the export markets for protein in neighbouring countries​,” he says.

Of course, that is the lot of the entrepreneur: endless calls and few answers as he tries to persuade much larger companies of the wider human benefits his technology offers. 

But as the head of a growing business that already does good trade in its home market, McLellan is not hunting for the illusive first deal entrepreneurs yearn for; rather his search is for partners in the food industry who he believes will see enhanced profits while making a real social difference through this unexpectedly nutritious byproduct.

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