A Denver Startup Is Making Gluten-Free Wheat with Mushrooms

MycoTechnology, a small startup based in Denver, Colorado, has 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.

Apr 7 2015, 3:30pm

Photo via Flickr user jow

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 sans gluten. If ever there were a bellwether this trend has become mainstream, it's gluten-free Cheerios.

But thanks to an ingenious method that harnesses the power of mushrooms, we may once again be able to embrace that problematic ingredient that is wheat.

READ MORE: Wheat Isn't the Reason Why You Can't Stop Farting

MycoTechnology, a small startup based in Denver, Colorado, has 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 percent of the kernel's gluten content. The company is scheduled to announce its findings today at the Ingredient Marketplace convention in Orlando, Florida.

But this isn't some kind of monstrous, genetically modified strain of wheat. MycoTechnology is simply using mushrooms to "eat" the gluten, leaving everything else behind.

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 reduce the parts per million of gluten in the wheat berry. The eight-to-ten-day process starts with preparing the wheat for inoculation with mycelia that has been "trained" to thrive on gluten. "We inoculate the substrate and let it grow for a number of days," Kelly says. This is when the fungi begin to consume the gluten from the wheat. "We stop the process by drying down the grains."

Kelly is a bit dodgy about the details of the actual procedure, but says that it "varies from substrate to substrate" and that different mushroom types are used, based on what they're targeting. MycoTechnology has used a similar procedure to remove unwanted compounds in chocolate and coffee.

After being processed, MycoTechnology's wheat contained only 30 ppm (parts per million) of gluten. To meet FDA requirements, gluten-free flour needs to come in at or less than 20 ppm; MycoTechnology plans to achieve that once their wheat is treated with additives that help to replace the lost gluten, which is the magic protein composite that gives bread its typical textures. Those ingredients––like guar gum, tapioca, and sorghum––will help provide the resulting products their elasticity and shape. "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.

Because MycoTechnology isn't 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. Consider products that use plant-based egg replacers, dairy products formed completely from yeast, or meat made from tissues in test tubes. MycoTechnology's version of wheat is what it calls a "class-3 functional food," meaning that the product is natural and organic, but it has been poked and prodded in the lab to behave like something else. Imagine it as one step beyond orange juice with added calcium or vitamin-enriched cereal.

Many mushrooms aren't well suited to the kitchen in the conventional sense. They're considered medicinal rather than culinary fungi, with hard, inedible bark that must be ground down in order to eat. That's what Kelly was doing before forming the company with his three co-founders––he was sprinkling mushrooms on his food to get the most of their supposed 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 its 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. 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 who—perhaps mistakenly—think eating less gluten will help them 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.