Fredericton company develops all natural preservative using mushrooms
Mushroom extract Chiber a clean alternative to synthetic preservatives
A Fredericton company has developed a natural food preservative from an unlikely source — extract of mushroom.
Chiber, a product developed by Chinova Bioworks, will offer food and beverage companies an alternative to artificial preservatives such as sodium sorbate and sodium benzoate.
These types of preservatives are created synthetically by modifying salt. Studies have found that sodium benzoate, when mixed with vitamin C, can turn into benzene, a known carcinogen.
"That's why the food industry is now trying to replace these two compounds with natural ingredients," said Tanzina Huq, co-founder and chief technology officer for the company.
Preservatives can be found in most food and beverage products, as well as products such as cosmetics, to prevent the growth of micro-organisms that spoil the products or make them less effective.
The Chiber extract works as an all-purpose antimicrobial, which makes it effective against a host of spoilage problems, including yeast, mould and bacteria.
Chiber (pronounced kye-ber) gets its name from chitosan and fibre, the two natural compounds in the extract.
Chitosan is a natural antibacterial created by treating the exoskeleton of crustaceans, such as crab and shrimp, which contain chitin, a natural derivative of glucose, with an alkaline substance.
When sourced from shellfish, chitosan can cause allergic reactions in some people, which makes the substance not ideal for use in food. Huq and her team wanted to create a natural food preservative from a non-animal source and turned to mushrooms, which also contain chitin.
The company purchases the extract from a European company. Chinova Bioworks then can customize different strains of the extract to meet each client's needs, depending on the product.
"When we extract our chitosan from fresh mushroom we get actually different types of chitosan — that's not just one chitosan, it's a polymer," Huq said.
Customization is achieved by combining different types of chitosan to achieve specific antimicrobial activity. Nothing is added to the mushroom extract in the process.
Huq said most other all-natural preservatives only target one specific aspect of spoilage.
"Our Chiber is unique. It works against all these microorganisms, there is no other preservative that works like that."
Chinova Bioworks will launch its first strain of the product in October for the beverage market and already has a client list that includes multinational companies from the U.S. and Canada.
Huq said the company has 11 employees and plans to hire two more this summer. Nine are based in the Fredericton lab, which handles testing and product development, and two work at the company's production facility in Prince Edward Island, where the finished preservative will be produced for the market.
Megan Hampsey, a microbiology technician at the Fredericton lab, works on product testing.
"On a day-to-day basis, we are taking products from clients and testing our product with it," Hampsey said.
Hampsey takes samples of a client product and applies the preservative to see how bacteria do or don't develop to ensure the correct formulation is used to make the product safe and shelf-stable.
Huq admits Chiber isn't as cheap as synthetic preservatives but is in a middle range compared to other preservatives.
She said the company's market research estimated the natural preservative industry is worth $2.5 billion U.S.
No clinical studies have been done on the health benefits of Chiber yet, but Huq expects it would have benefits similar to those of other natural fibres.
But the biggest advantage to health Chiber offers is its replacement of potentially harmful synthetic preservatives, she said.
In supermarkets, shoppers will most likely see "natural mushroom extract" on the ingredient label of products where Chiber is used. Huq said the ingredient label will be finalized closer to the launch of the product.
Chiber is approved for use in the U.S. and has received non-GMO certification in that country, but Chinova Bioworks is still waiting for approval for use in Canada.
Huq and her company recently won an entrepreneurship award from Mitacs, a non-profit that supports industrial and social innovation in Canada. She is one of five winners of the Mitacs Award, which recognizes innovative businesses that use research to impact the lives of Canadians.
Huq said the company's next step is to work with the dairy industry to develop a version of Chiber for dairy foods.
Then she's set her sights on the cosmetics industry.
"Hopefully, in 2022 we'll go on [to the] cosmetics market."