Growing Ideas: mushrooms, an all-natural preservative

A new ingredient for clean-label products

A chance encounter in a lab in New Brunswick, Canada, has, in just two years, led to a revolutionary preservative solution for food and beverages – and it is 100 percent natural. The magic ingredient? Mushrooms.

In 2016, Canadian biochemistry graduate Natasha Dhayagude and biotechnologist David Brown stumbled on the preservative properties of ‘chitosan’ (pronounced kite-o-san), a naturally occurring substance found in mushrooms and shellfish. “I was working at the Canadian Economic Development Agency at the time,” recalls Dhayagude. “David was producing and supplying chitosan for medical and pharmaceutical purposes. We did some tests and saw that chitosan also had excellent antimicrobial properties that could be useful in preservative solutions for food and beverages.”

Two years later Dhayagude is CEO, and Brown COO, of Chinova Bioworks, a company that is pioneering mushroom chitosan as a flavorless natural preservative with a broad spectrum of applications. Dhayagude: “We have just closed a two-million-dollar seed round of investment, bringing some major food-tech venture capitalists on board. Now we can build up our team, scale up production and accelerate the commercialization of our product into the market.”

A natural preservative

Chitosan has a wide range of properties: it’s most commonly known as a coagulant, making it useful in bandages to stop bleeding, and as a bulking agent used in medications alongside active ingredients. But Dhayagude saw another application. She imagined its antimicrobial properties might appeal to the growing number of customers looking for transparency and natural, ‘clean-label’ ingredients in their foods and beverages. It could be a healthy, natural alternative to common artificial preservatives, providing a clean-label option for food and beverage producers.

“Producers had a problem. There was a gap between what their customers wanted – natural ingredients – and what they could provide, which was largely artificial when it came to preservatives,” says Dhayagude. While there are other natural substances with preservative properties, such as citrus and rosemary extracts, these impact flavor, smell or texture, which chitosan doesn’t.

“Our preservatives can be formulated to address differing needs”

- Natasha Dhayagude, Chinova Bioworks

Customized chitosan

But the mushroom extract’s main selling point is that it can be customized. Chinova (pronounced ‘ki-no-va’), which was selected for participation in Rabobank’s accelerator program, Terra, has developed technology that optimizes chitosan for diverse demands. It can function as a ‘broad-spectrum’ preservative, inhibiting bacteria, yeast and mold in a variety of products – from baked goods and sauces to snacks and spreads. But it can also be customized to combat the individual microbial issues of food and beverage producers.

“Orange juice produced in North America, for example, contains very different micro-organisms to orange juice produced in South America,” Dhayagude explains, “so it needs different solutions to prevent microbial growth. Our preservatives can be formulated in different ways, addressing these differing needs.”

Dhayagude stresses how important it is to bring in specialists at different points in the research and development process. “We realized we didn't know everything and brought in an expert on natural antimicrobials and food safety.”

‘Shroom specialists: Natasha Dhayagude and David Brown

“Customers are really pushing for this”

Currently, Chinova is filing for regulatory approvals in the US. “We have been working with small and medium-sized food and beverage producers as well as many multinationals in the industry. Customers are really pushing for this. We can provide producers with an effective clean-label solution that ensures food safety, shelf life and the overall quality of the product.”

This interview is part of the Growing Ideas series, in which we take a look at the future of food and agriculture and offer a platform to innovative companies in these sectors.