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Lab-grown chicken nuggets and chocolate? How California’s Yolo County is shaping the future of food

by Tribune News Service | March 15, 2023 at 4:00 a.m.
Chocolate growth media ferments in beakers at California Cultured in West Sacramento last month where they are developing lab-made chocolate. (Paul Kitagaki Jr./The Sacramento Bee/TNS)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Melted chocolate whirred around a melanger in California Cultured 's workshop, destined to be poured, hardened and broken into little squares. A tasty dessert, not yet legal to sell in the U.S.

This chocolate didn't come from cacao pods in South America or Africa. It was grown in laboratory flasks and metal tanks inside a West Sacramento industrial park, part of a growing regional trend.

Yolo County has long been an agricultural hub. Now, its food tech companies are shaping what we eat in a different way.

From Davis to Woodland and West Sacramento, California, the county has become the regional hotbed for cultivated foods, lab-grown creations that advocates say reduce harms to animals and the environment.

"As this new industry is growing and start-ups are starting become slightly larger companies, I think this region's very attractive for workforce and for cost of living and the price of facilities being built," said UC Davis biotechnology program director Denneal Jamison-McClung.

Consumers can't currently buy cultivated foods (the preferred term for cell-cultured bites) in any country outside of Singapore. But experts expect these companies to receive the government go-ahead within the next two to three years, at which point they will want to hit the ground running.

Berkeley-based Upside Foods' cultivated chicken was approved by the FDA after a lengthy review process that concluded in November. If that product passes its USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service appraisal, the next wave of food will be available to consumers.

Lab-made chocolate:

How it's made

Cultured foods aren't the same as the Impossible and Beyond mock meats currently lining grocery store shelves. Food scientists create those in laboratories by combining oils, vegetable protein powders, fermented yeast and other ingredients. But cultured foods start as cells in the lab, and grow out from there as they ferment.

California Cultured starts by taking biopsies from choice cacao plants. Those cells are then fed nutrients such as sugar and growth hormones. The ones that respond best are transferred to metal tanks that simulate a rain forest environment.

The cells grow rapidly in those tanks for three to four days, acquiring mass as well as flavor, before being harvested, fermented and roasted. The resulting cacao nibs are pulverized in the melanger, just as traditional chocolate would be. They are then poured into molds and tempered.

California Cultured's 75 percent dark chocolate looks, smells and tastes like a designer product. It's floral and fruity, a little acidic, then bitter on its closing notes, with a good texture.

That's because California Cultured's higher-ups aren't new to the food world. Head of strategy and business development Steven Stearns was a former R&D chef at Nopa, the soon-to-close Copenhagen destination often regarded as the world's best restaurant.

Cultivated chocolate is also an ethical alternative to traditional, California Cultured co-founder and CEO Alan Perlstein said. While cacao is a major cash crop in West Africa, it's often grown and harvested by child laborers.

Tropical forests are also frequently cleared to plant cacao trees. California Cultured is working on technology to produce cultured coffee, for similar reasons.

"The flavors and the bioactives in our chocolate not only make it taste good, but we think that people can feel good about themselves eating it, and we think it's eventually going to be one of the mainstays of people's chocolate consumption in the future," Perlstein said.

California Cultured sits under five miles from The Better Meat Co., arguably West Sacramento's most well-known food tech company. There, scientists feed mycelium sugars and starches and let it ferment into a mild-tasting beige block they call "Rhiza."

When combined with flavor additives and thickening agents, The Better Meat Co. can create mock versions of just about any protein -- chicken tenders, breakfast sausages, even foie gras -- from Rhiza, with varying taste and texture profiles.

The Better Meat Co. is West Sacramento's best-known cultivated food start-up, but California Cultured has planned expansion to 12,100 square feet when fully built out, Perlstein said. It will be able to produce tons of chocolate per year to start once another 50-60 employees are added to the current 20.

Like many other local food tech companies, though, California Cultured started in Davis. It soon outgrew its office at engineering and life science incubator Inventopia, but its roots were there for a reason.

Research and development in Davis

Most conversations about cultivated food around the Sacramento area, inevitably, lead back to UC Davis.

A longtime leader in agricultural science, the region's premier research institution has honed in on cultivated meat since first hosting a speaker from Upside Foods (then known as Memphis Meats) in fall 2015.

That's due in large to student interest, said Jamison-McClung, who co-organizes the university's Cultivated Meat Consortium. Founded in 2019, the consortium has attracted undergraduate and graduates students with qualms about farming and ranching's effects on the earth and its inhabitants, she said.

"Many of them have some concerns about traditional agriculture, in terms of animal welfare and sustainability and use of water and energy and all of that, so I think part of their passion comes from a social good point of view," Jamison-McClung said.

Grant funding and a wealth of varied experience has helped UC Davis researchers examine cultivated meat from several angles, including whether it could realistically be produced in a cost-effective manner. The chemical engineering department's McDonald/Nandi Lab recently published an economic analysis of beef production from bioreactors, examining the scale at which it could be financially comparable to traditional ranching.

Others have done productions. A UC Davis doctoral candidate co-founded Optimized Foods, a start-up that grows cultured caviar in an off-campus laboratory, using techniques she gleaned from 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 typically lower and Silicon Valley is just two hours away.

"You're starting to see some of these entrepreneurs build up things in West Sacramento, Davis, Woodland -- the Sacramento area. Which is amazing to see, because a lot of that talent was coming out of UC Davis, and it's starting to stay local," Stearns said. "You're starting to see a community built."

Woodland's innovation infrastructure

A dozen miles north of UC Davis' campus, The Lab AgStart is Woodland's own incubation hub. Home to 10 start-ups, it's billed as the Central Valley's largest wet lab start-up incubator, with a commercial kitchen sponsored by Raley's and more than $45 million in private capital investments in its first year of operation.

The largest of those start-ups is TurtleTree, a Singapore-based company that's renting 17 benches from The Lab AgStart while awaiting completion of a 24,000-square foot West Sacramento laboratory.

TurtleTree makes cell-based lactoferrin, an iron-binding protein present in all milk but particularly colostrum, the first milk women produce after a baby is born.

By growing lactoferrin in bioreactors instead of extracting the small amount cows produce in their milk, TurtleTree hopes eventually to offer the supplement to infants, elderly people and athletes without its usual expensive cost and environmental impacts.

AgStart was founded in 2012 as a public-private partnership to promote food, agricultural 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 work stations.

That wing is dedicated to fermentation and tissue culture growth, the kind of workspace in which a cultivated food innovator could thrive. Some start-ups will flame out and others will outgrow that space, but Woodland now has a permanent space for boundless food science innovation, said Amanda Portier, program director of The Lab AgStart.

"Honestly, the possibilities are endless. It just depends on what kind of research is coming out of the institutions and Ph.D. candidates ... (and) who is willing to commercialize that research and use our facilities to do so," Portier said.

The general public won't be able to eat cultivated foods such as California Cultured's chocolate or Optimized Foods' caviar for a couple of years. But when approved, some of these futuristic foods will have roots in Yolo County.

"It's interesting for the general public to think about where food came from, and with all these ever-changing items, (the change) could happen in their region," Portier said. "We sometimes feel like the Bay Area or Silicon Valley is where all the innovation is coming from, but there's truly innovative things coming out of here as well."

photo Cultivated dark chocolate squares are made at California Cultured in West Sacramento last month. Cultivated chocolate can be an ethical alternative to traditional chocolate. (Paul Kitagaki Jr./The Sacramento Bee/TNS)

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