Molten chocolate swirled around a mixer in California Cultured’s workshop, meant to be poured, hardened and broken into small squares. A tasty dessert, not yet legal to sell in the United States
This chocolate does not come from South American or African cocoa pods. It was grown in lab flasks and metal tanks inside a West Sacramento industrial park, part of a growing regional trend.
Yolo County has long been an agricultural center. Today, its food tech companies are shaping what we eat in a different way.
From Davis to Woodland and West Sacramento, Calif., the county has become the regional hotbed for cultured foods, lab-grown creations that advocates say reduce harm to animals and the environment.
“As this new industry grows and start-ups start to grow into slightly larger companies, I think this area is very attractive in terms of labor, cost of living and price of facilities in under construction,” said UC Davis biotechnology program director Denneal Jamison-McClung. .
Consumers cannot currently purchase food grown (the preferred term for cell-grown bites) in any country outside of Singapore. But experts expect these companies to get the green light from the government within the next two to three years, by which time they will want to get started.
Cultured chicken from Berkeley-based Upside Foods was approved by the FDA after a lengthy review process that ended in November. If this product passes its USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service evaluation, the next wave of foods will be available to consumers.
Laboratory chocolate: how it’s made
Cultured foods aren’t the same as the Impossible and Beyond fake meats that currently line grocery store shelves. Food scientists create them in the lab by combining oils, plant protein powders, fermented yeast and other ingredients. But cultured foods start out as cells in the lab and grow from there as they ferment.
California Cultured begins by taking biopsies from choice cacao plants. These cells are then fed with nutrients such as sugar and growth hormones. Those that respond best are transferred to metal tanks that simulate a rainforest environment.
Cells grow rapidly in these tanks for three to four days, gaining mass as well as flavor, before being harvested, fermented and roasted. The resulting cocoa nibs are pulverized in the mixer, just like traditional chocolate would be. They are then poured into molds and tempered.
California Cultured’s 75% Dark Chocolate looks, smells and tastes like a designer product. It is floral and fruity, slightly acidic, then bitter on its final notes, with a good texture.
That’s because California Cultured Superiors aren’t new to the world of food. Head of Strategy and Business Development Steven Stearns was a former R&D head at Nopa, the soon-to-shut down destination in Copenhagen often considered the best restaurant in the world.
Cultured chocolate is also an ethical alternative to traditional, said California Cultured co-founder and CEO Alan Perlstein. Although cocoa is a major cash crop in West Africa, it is often grown and harvested by child labourers.
Rainforests are also frequently cleared to plant cocoa trees. California Cultured is working on technology to produce cultured coffee, for similar reasons.
“The flavors and bioactives in our chocolate not only make it taste great, but we believe people can feel good about eating it, and we believe it will ultimately be one of the mainstays of people’s chocolate consumption in the future,” says Perlstein.
California Cultured is less than five miles from The Better Meat Co., arguably West Sacramento’s best-known food tech company. There, the scientists feed mycelium sugars and starches and let it ferment into a mild-tasting beige block they call “Rhiza.”
When combined with flavoring additives and thickening agents, The Better Meat Co. can create mock versions of almost any protein – chicken tenderloins, breakfast sausages, even foie gras – with varied taste and texture profiles.
The Better Meat Co. is West Sacramento’s best-known cultured food startup, but California Cultured has plans to expand to 12,100 square feet when fully built, Perlstein said. It will be able to produce tons of chocolate per year to start once 50 to 60 additional employees are added to the current 20.
Like many other local food tech companies, California Cultured started in Davis. He quickly outgrew his desk at engineering and life sciences incubator Inventopia, but his roots were there for a reason.
Research and Development at Davis
Most conversations about food grown in the Sacramento area inevitably lead back to UC Davis.
A long-time leader in agricultural science, the region’s premier research institution has focused on cultured meat since it first hosted a speaker from Upside Foods (then known as Memphis Meats) in the fall of 2015.
That’s largely due to student interest, said Jamison-McClung, who co-organizes the university’s Cultivated Meat Consortium. Founded in 2019, the consortium has attracted undergraduate and graduate students concerned about the effects of agriculture and ranching on the land and its people, she said.
“A lot of them have concerns about traditional farming, in terms of animal welfare, sustainability and water and energy use, etc. So I think part of their passion comes from a social perspective,” Jamison-McClung said. .
Grant funding and a wealth of varied experience helped UC Davis researchers examine cultured meat from multiple angles, including whether it could realistically be produced profitably. The McDonald/Nandi Lab in the Department of Chemical Engineering recently published an economic analysis of beef production from bioreactors, examining the scale at which it might be financially comparable to traditional ranching.
Others have made productions. A UC Davis doctoral student co-founded Optimized Foods, a startup that grows cultured caviar in an off-campus lab, using techniques she gleaned from the Cultivated Meat Consortium.
Bay Area food-tech start-ups have long hired UC Davis alumni, said Stearns, who earned a bachelor’s degree in food science and technology and an MBA from the university.
But with venture capital money harder to come by these days, cultured food companies are looking east to Yolo County, where rental costs are generally lower and Silicon Valley is not only two hours away.
“You’re starting to see some of these entrepreneurs building things in West Sacramento, Davis, Woodland — the Sacramento area. Which is amazing to see, because a lot of that talent came from UC Davis, and it’s starting to stay local,” Stearns said. “You start to see a community building.”
Woodland’s Innovation Infrastructure
About ten miles north of the UC Davis campus, The Lab @ AgStart is Woodland’s own incubation center. Home to 10 start-ups, it’s billed as Central Valley’s largest wet lab start-up incubator, with a Raley’s-sponsored commercial kitchen and more than $45 million in private capital investment during its first year of operation.
The largest of these start-ups is TurtleTree, a Singapore-based company that is leasing 17 benches from The Lab @ AgStart pending completion of a 24,000 square foot lab in West Sacramento.
TurtleTree makes cell-based lactoferrin, an iron-binding protein found in all milks, but especially in colostrum, the first milk women produce after the birth of a baby.
By growing lactoferrin in bioreactors instead of extracting the small amount that cows produce in their milk, TurtleTree hopes to eventually bring the supplement to infants, the elderly and athletes without its expensive cost and usual environmental impacts.
AgStart was founded in 2012 as a public-private partnership to promote food, agriculture and health entrepreneurship in Woodland. The lab opened in May 2021, then a Bayer-sponsored wing opened in January, doubling The Lab @ AgStart’s footprint and workstations.
This wing is dedicated to fermentation and tissue culture growth, the kind of workspace in which a cultured food innovator might thrive. Some start-ups will die out and others will outgrow this space, but Woodland now has a permanent space for limitless innovation in food science, said Amanda Portier, program director for The Lab @ AgStart.
“Honestly, the possibilities are endless. It just depends on the type of research that comes out of the institutions and the Ph.D. candidates … (and) who is willing to commercialize this research and use our facilities to do so,” Portier said.
The general public won’t be able to eat cultured foods like chocolate from California Cultured or caviar from Optimized Foods for a few years. But once approved, some of these futuristic foods will have roots in Yolo County.
“It’s interesting for the general public to think about where food comes from, and with all these ever-changing items, (change) could happen in their area,” Portier said. “We sometimes feel like the Bay Area or Silicon Valley is where all the innovation comes from, but there are also really innovative things coming out of here.”
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