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Freaky Fungus Could Help Feed the World

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A Dutch bio-engineer says his lab-produced fungus could someday be used to save the lives of hungry people in the developing world.

But first, it might need some extra Rooster Sauce to make it go down easier.

"It has a very strong taste, a bitter aftertaste," says Hans van Leeuwen, a professor at Iowa State University. His research team has tried to make the fungal food tastier by flavoring it with spices, eggs, and flour. Still, as van Leeuwen admits, "It has a unique flavor. I like the taste, I've been eating it for years. But it puts some people off."

The fungus is cultivated from the leftovers of ethanol production - a fuel derived from corn. Van Leeuwen combines the ethanol byproduct with a common type of mold - "a species you could find in the kitchen" - and grows a batch over a 48-hour period. After harvesting it through screens, he runs it through a washing machine in order to dry it out, as the product is about 90 percent water at this point.

Finally, it's dried out further in a microwave. The resulting fungal food - which has a meaty texture and ranges from brown to mustard yellow in color - is then fit for human consumption, although it has also proved to be very popular with pigs in feeding trials.

The same type of fungus has been eaten in Asian cuisine for hundreds of years, va Leeuwen says. It's used in producing tempeh - a wheat product popular with vegans - and soyu, a fermented soy sauce. It's also something of a power food: rich in lysine and other amino acids, as well as polysaturated fats.

According to van Leeuwen, the fungus is so healthy that it could be sold in capsules as a diet additive. But what he really hopes is that it could be used to save the lives of millions of people who die each year due to lack of proteins. "We could grow enough to feed a couple hundred million people, really," he says.

There have been other attempts to tackle hunger and malnutrition in the developing world via innovative food production. One project in Guatemala, Maní+, created a food supplement made partly out of peanuts that's meant to combat malnutrition in the country. A French company manufactures a similar peanut-based product, Plumpy'nut. And who could forget the world's first in-vitro beef burger?

Van Leeuwen already has a patent on his fungus-growing process. What he needs now, he says, is some interested investors to further fund his research, and bring his team a few steps closer to producing a fungal food that tastes better. "It will probably be a few years before we stock the supermarket shelves," he says.

Van Leeuwen himself is already a convert. During a summer research trip to India and Turkey, he brought some dried fungus along with him, for snacking.