Mushrooms Make Gluten-Free Wheat

Gluten-free yeast bread. Photo by Brenda Wiley/Flickr .

Gluten-free yeast bread. Photo byBrenda Wiley/Flickr.

The gluten-free bandwagon is becoming a little cramped these days. Pizza Hut offers an alternative pizza crust in 2,400 of its stores; the Girl Scouts introduced a gluten-free peanut butter oatmeal cookie; and this July General Mills is launching five of its best-known cereals in g-free versions. If ever there were a bellwether that gluten-free has become mainstream, it’s Cheerios. But thanks to an ingenious method of harnessing the power of gourmet mushrooms, we may once again be able to embrace that problematic ingredient: wheat.

MycoTechnology, a small startup based in Denver, Colorado, announced today at the Ingredient Marketplace conventionin Orlando, Florida, that they have discovered a way to use its proprietary “mushroom technology” to strip a wheat kernel of enough of its gluten to warrant an FDA-approved label. In fact, independent third party testing has confirmed the mushroom strains were able to remove 99.9998% of the kernel’s gluten content.

Because they’re not tinkering with the genetics of the wheat berry, this process won’t be labeled GMO. But it may be time for the food movement to come up with recommendations for foods that are close matches to the original, yet are not the same thing. I’m thinking of products that use plant-based egg replacer, dairy products formed completely from yeast, or meat made from tissues in test tubes. MycoTechnology’s version of wheat is a class-3 functional food, meaning its evolution is natural and organic, but it has been poked and prodded in the lab to behave like something else. What information needs to be conveyed to consumers when a product is transformed or adapted in the lab?

Dr. Brooks J. Kelly, MycoTechnology’s chief scientist and co-founder, says that through their extensive studies they have found that certain mushrooms perform exceptionally well at removing the offensive protein. The patent-pending MycoSmooth™ process uses the mycelia, or root structure, of mushrooms to consume the offensive gluten in the wheat berry. The 8-to-10-day procedure starts with preparing the wheat for the introduction of the mycelia. “Then we inoculate the substrate and let it grow for a number of days,” Kelly says. This stage is key––it’s when the fungi are eradicating the gluten from the whole wheat. Then they “stop the process by drying down the grains.” According to Kelly, different mushroom types are used, based on what they’re targeting, and their formulations vary “from substrate to substrate.”

After being processed, lab tests revealed the concentration of gluten in MycoTechnology’s wheat to be 30 ppm (parts per million). To meet FDA requirements, gluten-free flour needs to come in at or less than 20 ppm, which will happen once their wheat gets additives to help replace the loss of gluten, which is the magic that makes bread light, chewy, and crunchy. Those ingredients––like guar gum, tapioca and sorghum––will help give the resulting products their elasticity and shape. (Bagel anyone?) “The challenge in the growing gluten-free movement is formulating products that have similar flavor profiles and mouth feel to products that are wheat-based,” says Alan Hahn, CEO and co-founder of MycoTechnology. Thanks to their discovery, companies can soon create a better match to their original wheat-based items.

Some of the best mushrooms aren’t well-suited to our culinary pursuits. They’re medicinal with a hard, inedible bark that must be ground down in order to eat, which is what Dr. Kelly was doing before forming the company with his three co-founders––he was sprinkling it on his food to get the most of their healing properties. In addition to an increased value in amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and beta-glucans, mushrooms are a great source of non-animal protein. This was the genesis of the company, and why fungi are at the center of their technology.

The two-year old company didn’t even have wheat in its crosshairs. Their focus was on altering a different subset of agricultural products with three main goals: improved flavor, better nutrition profile, and lowered toxins. Using their proprietary mushrooms, they’ve already found a way to remove the bitterness from cacao beans, reduce the metallic taste in Stevia, and lower the acidity in coffee beans. Alan Hahn, tells me, “Even if you don’t like mushrooms, you’ll like this.”

It’s estimated that the gluten-free market will hit more than $15 billion in annual sales by 2016, which matches Nielsen data for an equal rise in household purchases of gluten-free foods. With this news it’s no surprise that major brands are focusing their attention on the growing category that includes people with celiac disease, those with gluten sensitivity, and regular folks, people who think eating less gluten will help shed pounds.

MycoTechnology is in the process of closing a round of Series A funding and are looking for commercial partners to license their patent-pending process: to mill the resulting flour and bring wheat-based, gluten-free products to your supermarket shelves. Finally, you could find mushrooms in the center aisles.

This piece was written for Vice/Munchies.