There's a big demand for the irresistible flavor of bacon in the food industry, and that has some local entrepreneurs licking their chops.
A Missoula company, Blue Marble Biomaterials, has created a highly sought-after plant-based bacon flavor ingredient that has the potential for all kinds of uses. Blue Marble specializes in creating products employing used biomass as the starting material, rather than petroleum-derived ingredients.
“Most don't believe me when I say this but we have succeeded in manufacturing this product from over a dozen different types of biomass, including spent coffee grounds, tomato pomace (skin, pulp, seeds and stems) and grape pomace,” said Colby Underwood, Blue Marble co-CEO and chief business officer. “Yes, you heard me right. The flavor and aroma of bacon from plants.”
The product, officially called bacon dithiazine, meets all the natural-labeling requirements set forth by the United States and the European Union.
“Others in our industry call us Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory because we’re always working on crazy things like bacon flavoring,” Underwood said.
It is manufactured here using a proprietary, non-GMO fermentation technology and is certified vegan and kosher. The flavor was approved by an expert panel of what are essentially flavor testers.
"We are delivering what the industry is searching for: 100 percent verified natural, cost-competitive alternatives to petroleum-derived ingredients and other so-called 'natural' products,” Underwood explained.
An unimaginable quantity of consumer products, including those in the food and beverage industry, are synthetically derived from petroleum, Underwood said.
“Over 90 percent of consumer products have one or more petroleum-derived chemical ingredient added to their recipes,” he said. “It might be a flavor chemical to produce a specific type of flavor. It could be a performance chemical that reduces wrinkles by being applied to the face through a lotion."
Blue Marble’s mission is to replace those chemicals made from crude oil with fully sustainable alternatives made from plant leftovers. The company employs 30 people, many with scientific backgrounds, at its carbon-neutral facility on Expressway Drive near the airport.
The firm publicly announced that the bacon flavor ingredient was available for purchase on Aug. 5. Underwood said they’ve gotten a tremendous amount of interest from all around the world since the product launched because nobody else has an EU natural version on the marketplace.
“You can get petrochemical versions,” he said. “There are also U.S. natural versions, but the EU natural regulations are much more stringent.”
Blue Marble's main focus is on producing drop-in replacement specialty chemicals for the flavor, fragrance and personal care industries. The company originally started as a biofuels producer, using algae, but transitioned to making high-value, low-quantity biochemicals.
“The way that we do that is we take other companies’ biomass side streams from traditionally the food, beverage, agricultural and forestry industries,” Underwood explained. “Our technology is very unique. To date, we’ve tested over 4,000 different types of feedstocks through our technology. We’re not using the corn kernels, we’re using the corncobs, or corn silage, or silk.”
Using materials that are traditionally considered waste allows Blue Marble to price its products at a cost that is competitive with synthetic products. Consumers are increasingly demanding so-called “green” or “natural” products, and they’re willing to pay a premium for those products – but only to a point.
“We’re going to be competitive as possible with synthetic chemicals and one of the ways we do that is by using low-value starting materials,” Underwood said.
Their core technology, which uses bacteria to break down biomass, could allow them to produce bioplastics and biofuels in the future.
“We treat our core technology like a black box trade secret,” Underwood said.
Every step of the process, from initial fermentation to quality control to packaging and shipping, is done “right here in little ol’ Missoula” according to Underwood.
The quest for an all-natural bacon flavoring began when Blue Marble was approached by a business partner.
“They said they were desperately searching for an EU natural version of this product called bacon dithiazine, more commonly called bacenol,” Underwood said. “They said, ‘We can’t find this anywhere in the world’ – a natural version. We started working on this five months ago and within two months we already had a prototype built.”
Blue Marble already has a line of third-party verified products called natural esters, which are chemical compounds. The bacon flavoring is just their most recent product.
“The best way to describe this is it’s for consumers who are looking for vegan or vegetarian food options with bacon flavoring,” he said. “No animals were used to make this product. It has a lot of packaged food applications. It could also be used in pet food to give Fido a bacon flavoring to his food. It could really be used in any sort of packaged food application.”
Underwood said it could be as soon as six to nine months before people see the natural bacon flavoring in food products.
He said the company is always growing, and they are undergoing a period of creativity and productivity right now, something they call the “summer of innovation.”
“We’re going to have some big announcements coming soon,” he said.