How Paleo is using biochemistry to bring plant-based mammoth meat to consumers

Meat alternative makers are working to create products that look, feel, taste and smell like the products consumers are already familiar with.

Belgian startup Paleo is developing an ingredient that will create an entirely new taste sensation: plant-based wooly mammoth.

The company creates different animal heme proteins through precision fermentation. Heme, an iron-rich protein found in the muscles of animals, is a substance that helps provide meat with its trademark taste. Paleo can use fermentation to make heme that is normally found in beef, chicken, pork, lamb, tuna and, yes, wooly mammoth.

“You can describe it as being more meaty,” said Co-founder and CEO Hermes Sanctorum. Mammoth heme has a stronger aroma and taste, he said — though it usually depends on the ingredients it’s being used with, as well as its application.

But Paleo isn’t just out there to resurrect tastes from the ancient past and add them to tomorrow’s soy and pea analogs. Its heme proteins can also customize alternative versions of the food many meat-loving consumers enjoy today, making them more likely to make sustainable and kinder choices, Sanctorum said.

Sanctorum acknowledges he is impatient. A bioengineer and former member of Belgium’s Federal Parliament, he left politics because it took too long for things to get done. He said he is a firm believer in the power of cultivated meat, but it will still take years to get to the scale in which it can make a difference in what people eat. Plant-based food is here and available, but making the products taste like something consumers would want is a challenge, Sanctorum said.

“Since heme is such an important part of taste in meat, if you want to make plant-based foods taste more like meat, it makes sense to add heme to it,” Sanctorum said.

Because Paleo uses precision fermentation, its heme ingredients are identical to what’s found in the corresponding animals. (Or, in the case of wooly mammoth, what would be found.) Its patent application was recently published by the World Intellectual Property Organization. Sanctorum said the company is currently talking with some food manufacturers, and its ingredient could be on the market as soon as next year.

Heme without animals

Heme protein plays two vital roles in meat, Sanctorum said. It provides the characteristic meaty taste that consumers are used to. But it also makes iron bio-available. Both of those aspects are vital for meat analogs, he said.

“It’s taste, which is very important for a consumer preference, but it’s also about health, nutritional value, so it’s a good and healthy protein,” Sanctorum said.

A small amount of heme protein can make a great impact on a plant-based product’s taste and nutrition, he said.

Hermes Sanctorum and Andy de Jong hold plates shaped like a white yin-yang with a patty of raw plant-based meat in each.

Paleo co-founders Hermes Sanctorum and Andy de Jong.

Courtesy of Paleo


Paleo, which Sanctorum founded with medical doctor Andy de Jong, uses precision fermentation technology to create this protein without any animal. It modifies yeasts to produce these specific heme proteins when fermented. And, Sanctorum said, this method gets around Europe’s strict restrictions around genetically modified food — though whether it would be considered a GMO product by consumers or other groups is an open question. 

There are already alternative heme ingredients out there. Impossible Foods has one for its products that comes from soy and is made through precision fermentation, and Motif FoodWorks launched its Hemami ingredient late last year. But Paleo is the only company with a portfolio of different heme choices, Sanctorum said. 

Sanctorum said it was important to come out with several heme protein options because customers will be making different products and have different needs. The proteins are generally similar from animal to animal, but Sanctorum said that there are differences in things like amino acid composition or compounds. The work of designing the heme proteins is done through biochemistry, he said, and Paleo is working with potential clients to see how closely the proteins can meet different needs.