Japanese Food-tech Start-ups Create "More than Food"


As the world faces the dire consequences of climate change, it is essential to reconsider our food choices and the methods used to produce them. The emergence of alternative foods, such as plant-based meat and lab-grown meat, present a futuristic and ethical solution for ensuring a sustainable future for generations to come. But how can we adapt our food culture to reflect this significant shift? Japan, the birthplace of the word oishii (good taste), offers inspiration on how to deliciously and sustainably redesign our culinary traditions.

Umami United envisions a food-diverse society
Teaser Image Caption
Umami United envisions a food-diverse society where plant-based foods transcend differences such as veganism, food allergies, and halal.

In the face of climate change, and in order to keep the earth sustainable for future generations, it is time to rethink the food we eat and how we produce it. Consequently, alternative foods, such as plant-based meat and lab-grown meat, are becoming relevant futuristic and ethical options. How can we redesign and adapt our food culture to reflect the necessary and dramatic changes? Some inspiration comes from Japan, the birthplace of the word oishii, meaning “good taste” in Japanese.

Plant-based Meat

With rising incomes, global meat consumption is expected to grow. Meanwhile, meat production is already responsible for approximately 60% of the greenhouse gas emissions generated by food production, and is a major contributor to air and water pollution. Many people would agree that humanity should adopt alternatives in order to avoid both food and environmental crises triggered by the dual stresses of continuously increasing meat consumption and perpetual world population growth.

Plant-based meat has seen much growth and interest over the last few years. More recently, however, the industry is experiencing difficulties, as shown by the troubles of American plant-based meat start-up Beyond Meat. As Jesse Newman, a reporter at The Wall Street Journal covering food and agriculture, pointed out, it remains challenging for meat-alternative companies to compete with companies selling less expensive real meat without getting consumers' appropriate understanding for the higher cost, particularly in a time of inflation.

A survey published in June 2021 showed that in 2020, the size of the plant-based food market in Japan was valued at approximately USD 0.18 billion. It is expected to grow to USD 0.3 billion in 2023 and continue to grow steadily. However, the survey also suggested that the Japanese might have a tendency not to consider plant-based food as an alternative to animal food in their eating culture, even if social awareness of plant-based foods is rising in Japanese society. Instead, food technology innovation in Japan is sometimes focusing on other elements of the food system.

Shibuya, Tokyo

The Japanese government has been proactive in supporting food tech research and development (R&D). In 2020, it launched the Council for Public-private Partnership in Food Technology to develop new markets related to food tech. In addition, Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries budget for 2022 allocated approximately USD 31 million for sustainable food production R&D support, including food tech. This budget is intended to provide comprehensive support for start-ups in the fields of agriculture, forestry, fisheries, and foodstuffs, from the R&D level to commercialization. This budget is a part of the ongoing “Measures for Achievement of Decarbonization and Resilience with Innovation (MeaDRI)”, which aims to foster and realise a resilient and sustainable ecosystem for the whole industry, including food production.

A Plant-based Solution for Egg Allergies

The Japanese market is behind in the global recognition of plant-based food. Therefore, we are going to the global market, which has social awareness of the importance in the first place," Hiroto Yamazaki, CEO and cofounder of Umami United explaining their strategy. Umami United, a Japanese food-tech start-up founded in 2022, explores the way to achieve an invisible shift” to alternatives by turning eggs into plant-based food. "Egg is a fundamental ingredient for food on this planet. Our aim is to replace egg with plant-based egg without people noticing that it is made from plant-based ingredients. Our target group is people who have health-related issues with eggs, particularly egg allergies," said Yamazaki.

Umami Egg 2.0
This powder-form product is crafted using 100% plant-based ingredients and is designed to replicate the taste and umami flavour of traditional eggs. Simply mix the product with soy milk and heat to experience a delicious and guilt-free alternative to traditional eggs.

Actually, Umami United is not merely a food production start-up, but it is also a solution provider for those who have health issues with food. What is meant by the invisible shift is not only to replace eggs, but to make a positive and natural change for people suffering from egg allergies with a plant-based food. It is said that 10% of children have food allergies and 40% of those children are allergic to eggs," said Yamazaki.To achieve this goal, we should be global in the first place to maximize the effect of the product.”

What this emerging start-up focuses on is Japanese traditional food. It produces a powdered egg alternative named Umami Egg’, which mimics the taste, colour, favour, and texture of egg and only consists of plant-based ingredients. In fact, Umami Egg is designed by using the characteristics of Japanese ingredients. Kunihiro Oba, CTO of Umami United explained, When eggs are heated, they have the characteristic of being elastic but fragile. The Umami Egg reproduces these characteristics and texture. The elasticity is created using konjac elements, while the fragility is created by the character of tofu." Konjac and tofu are traditional Japanese daily foods made from konjac potatoes and soybeans respectively. Tofu, in particular, contains plenty of high-quality vegetable protein and has been developed into a variety of diet foods and sweets, especially popular among health-conscious people.

The companys key technology for food production is using unique enzymes to produce its umami, a glutamic acid that produces a pleasant savoury taste. In the case of umami production, the use of enzymes is a well-established approach in the Japanese food industry. For example, the umami seasoning distributed worldwide by Ajinomoto brand uses a particular enzyme to synthesize glutamic acid.

"We have researched and developed a unique enzymatic synthesis to reproduce the deep richness of real eggs,” said Oba. Utilizing this method, they can generate umami from almost every food with a small calibration and modification. Current Umami Egg is made from discarded agricultural crops, which in this case is the wood ear fungus, cultivated widely on Japanese farms. This umami synthesis technology, based on a molecular engineering approach, can be utilized on a wide variety of ingredients. Firstly, we used discarded wood ear fungus and made success. Using this approach, we hope we could also contribute to solving the problem of food waste in the process of replacing eggs,” said Oba.

Intel inspired us,” said Yamazaki, Once Intel dominated computing by replacing all the CPU in the world. We hope to do it again in the food industry to make the world a better place for people who have allergies." Their products have been sold to consumers through an online store. The price for Umami Egg Powder (for commercial use) is approximately USD 100 for 500 g. Umami United is an early-stage start-up, but has already been collaborating with a major Japanese condiment company that has a global market, and a major Japanese food manufacturer that provides school lunches.

Lab-grown ‘More than Meat’

Aside from plant-based alternatives, lab-grown meat is another option that receives huge expectations when it comes to improving sustainability of food production.

Currently, Singapore is the only country where lab-grown meat can be legally sold to customers. Recently a game-changing decision by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve human consumption of lab-grown meat for the first time was widely reported. In Japan, governmental policy for commercial lab-grown meat is under discussion, but significant development is underway from the start-up to the enterprise level.

We are conducting R&D to produce meat from cells that are more than meat,” said Ikko Kawashima, CTO of IntegriCulture, a start-up developing scalable cell culture technology. Cellular agriculture is a novel approach to food production, allowing the manufacture of agricultural products through direct manipulation of cells and tissues, without the need for traditional farming methods involving the use of plants or animals.

In a nutshell, the cell cultivation technology we are developing is mimicking an environment that makes the cells operate as if they were still inside a body,” said Kawashima. Normally, animal or human cells are naturally programmed to die when they are taken out of the body. Therefore, cell cultivation needs a particular method to mimic the environment of a living body to sustain cell growth in the lab. Some lab-grown meat start-ups make blood components (haemoglobin) from so-called genetically engineered yeast and other bacteria and feed them to cultured meat as growth factors. By contrast, IntegriCulture has been focusing on the mechanisms of communication between organs in an animal’s body. Inter-organ communication is an inherent physiological function of the animal body in which organs interact via blood vessels to exchange factors that are useful for cell growth. “Through our research, we have identified organs that can grow specific cells. Organs are grown together by cultivating cells in a bioreactor called the CulNet system, just as they would inside the body, without the need for additional growth factors or blood components. This feature significantly contributes to reducing cultivation costs and more delicious meat production,” said Kawashima.

Cell culture bioreactor CulNet system
Cell culture bioreactor CulNet system developed by IntegriCulture can be theoretically applied to any animal and cell type.

IntegriCulture has already developed the base technology necessary for cell culture. Utilising the CulNet system, we can produce beef cultivated from goat organs, for instance, or goat meat cultivated from fish organs. We have confirmed that this is possible through our research so far,” said Kawashima. This technology has the potential to transform the way we think about food and cooking. Chefs will be excited to create new recipes from goat-flavoured chicken or fish-flavoured beef. It may sound like sci-fi, but throughout history, humans have done similar modifications to plants to obtain more desirable traits. Our aim is to create a hardware platform to democratise synthesis of the source of proteins. The CulNet system’s method of cultivating delicious meat would become valuable for restaurants, and the protocol may even be marketed. We pursue a future where more than meatcreates a more than food culture,” said Kawashima.

The company plans to promote the CulNet system and envisions a future where meat can be cultured at home and in shops. At present, the company is in the final adjustment stage for stable production of 8 kg per month, and is targeting 320 kg monthly within two years and 4.6 tonnes monthly within four years. As for the cost, it is currently approximately USD 230 for 100 g. The high cost comes from the CulNet system device, which will be improved in the future. “Perhaps in the near future our products would be featured on news programmes, when our foie gras is introduced to the market. It is ethical and tasty with enough potential as a luxury ingredient," Kawashima said.

Cultured foie gras
IntegriCulture is the first company in the world to successfully produce cultured foie gras in 2019.

Both start-ups reimagine the Japanese concept of oishii with cutting-edge technology. The word oishii is not simply a matter of good taste, but rather the depth of what lies behind the meal, encompassing craftsmanship, food sustainability, and the pleasure of eating.