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Could asparagus hold the key to better tasting smoked salmon?

Ottawa innovators are using the cellulose structures found in fruits and veggies to develop plant-based meats. The unusual method also holds great promise for treating spinal cord injuries.

Étienne Cuerrier is not someone you’d expect to work in vegan cuisine. As a child in the 1990s, he’d roam the woods behind his parents’ cottage in the Outaouais region of Quebec, snaring rabbits with homemade traps and shooting deer with a BB gun. In 2015, he co-founded the Meat Press, an Ottawa sandwich shop that cured its products on site. The deli became famous for its cold cuts, sausages and foie gras.

Étienne Cuerrier had doubts, though. He’d always sourced his meat from local farmers with sustainable practices, but demand for his products was skyrocketing. “To keep pace, we’d have to go to industrial suppliers,” he says. “I wasn’t too fond of that idea.” In 2021, he shuttered the restaurant and took a job as a culinary instructor at La Cité Collégiale, an Ottawa arts and tech college.

There, Étienne met Anna Canto, a scientist who leads research and development at Whiteboard Foods, a startup affiliated with La Factorie Desjardin, an incubator at the college for early-stage entrepreneurs. Whiteboard’s specialty is plant-based meat, a product that made Étienne instantly skeptical. He’d sampled such wares before: The worst were unpalatable, the best tasted like flavoured tofu.

If only to confirm his suspicions, Étienne gave Whiteboard’s smoked salmon a try and was shocked. The flavour wasn’t perfect, but it was close, and the texture — gelatinous, yet firm — was nearly identical to the genuine article. Could plant-based meat have a future after all? And what on Earth were Whiteboard’s products made from?

The answer to these questions was more surprising still. Whiteboard was in possession of a radical new technology that could change medical science, too.

Structures of healing

Around the time that Étienne was opening his restaurant, Charles Cuerrier, a pharmacologist (with no relation to Étienne), was co-founding a company of his own: Spiderwort Inc., an Ottawa medical startup. He’d come to this venture through happenstance. In the early 2010s, when he was a postdoctoral student in pharmacology at the University of Ottawa, a Ph.D. student came into the lab with an apple and a hypothetical question for his colleagues: Could the structures of the apple be implanted into human tissue? It was a provocative idea. The lab’s methodology was “to try bold things,” says Charles. “You can fail, for sure, but you can also create something new.”

The apple idea became the basis for Spiderwort, which Charles co-founded in 2015. “The goal,” he says, “was to use elements from the plant kingdom to assist the animal kingdom.” Spiderwort’s original interest was spinal cord injuries, which can leave a patient paralyzed, consigned to a wheelchair, and with no control over blood pressure, urination or sexual functions.

When people experience such injuries, the wounds don’t heal properly. Instead of an ordered mass of cells, the body creates a messy cluster of scar tissue, a kind of cellular barrier that blocks signals between the nervous system and the brain, rendering the patient unable to move. But if the cells could be embedded in some kind of structure — a scaffold, say — they might come to resemble healthy tissue. Communication between body and brain could be restored, and so too could mobility.

Spiderwort’s key insight is that such scaffolds exist in nature. All plant cells are embedded in cellulose, an organic latticework, which holds cells much as an egg carton holds eggs. As it happens, the cellulose structures of asparagus are optimally configured for mammalian spinal tissue. “From asparagus,” says Charles, “we can create a scaffold that’s similar to what you’d find in a human spine.”

Using a proprietary chemical formula, the Spiderwort team “decellularizes” asparagus stalks, thereby extracting the cellulose, which, after further chemical treatments, could be implanted into an injured spine. The body will generates new cells. But rather than clustering the cells in random configurations, it will arrange them neatly within the scaffold — at least that’s the hope. “Animal cells naturally stick to cellulose,” Charles explains. “The cellulose could be a bridge between the two sides of the injury.”

In 2020, the Spiderwort co-founders, along with other researchers, published a study of cellulose scaffolds. When the materials were implanted into rats with spinal-cord injuries, the study showed, the animals improved over six months. The company has now received a “Breakthrough Device” designation from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which will enable it to accelerate its research toward human trials. If those trials are successful, the technology could restore mobility to tens of millions of injured people.

From the OR to the breakfast table

This innovation has non-medical applications, too, such as plant-based meat. The Spiderwort team reasoned that, if you can create meat-like tissue with plant cellulose and then embed flavours in the scaffolding, you can mimic the taste and texture of actual meat. In 2020, Spiderwort hired a team of food scientists to adapt its technology for culinary purposes. The next year, that entity became Whiteboard Foods, a subsidiary that will soon be spun off into its own company.

According to Prashant Jairaj, Whiteboard’s general manager, Whiteboard has one major leg-up on its competitors: the sensory experience it provides. When marketing plant-based meat, you can talk up the health benefits (it’s free of hormones and antibiotics) or the environmental impacts (it generates fewer greenhouse grass emissions and uses up less land and water) but such arguments appeal, ultimately, to people’s sense of virtue rather than their sense of taste.

If you really want to win customers over, Jairaj argues, you must give them something delicious to eat. “Most consumers today are cognizant of the environmental and health impacts of switching to a plant-based diet,” he says. But when they sample one of the alternatives on offer, he adds, they often decide, instead, to stick with meat: “What’s out there now is not delivering.”

For its initial retail offering, Whiteboard is focusing on seafood — smoked salmon and tuna sashimi — which are under-supplied in the plant-based meat industry. It creates these products with fruit or vegetable products. Whiteboard decellularizes the organic material using non-toxic chemicals. It then mixes the cellulose with various secret ingredients, until the product takes on a gel-like texture, resembling raw fish. “We only use food-grade materials,” Canto says, “which you would find in a regular kitchen.”

The last step is creating the flavour profile. Étienne has helped the company refine its cooking processes. Why does Whiteboard salmon taste smoky? Because it really was smoked. How did Whiteboard create the flavour of torched sashimi? With an actual blowtorch. Last November, I visited the laboratory at La Cité Collégiale and sampled the products. They’re remarkable. In a blind taste test, I’m not sure I could distinguish them from the real thing.

Survivalism for the 21st century

Whiteboard’s goal is to get its products into restaurants and eventually grocery stores. It will launch its smoked salmon this year, pending approval from Health Canada and the FDA. It may then move into other seafoods or deli meats.

Just as Spiderwort’s products may revolutionize the way we recover from injuries, Whiteboard’s could revolutionize the way we eat. Currently, meat production leads to roughly 15 per cent of global carbon emissions, and fish farming is associated with a range of maladies, from habitat destruction to water-system contamination. If the planet is to prosper, we must all orient our diets away from meat. We won’t do that unless we have an appetizing alternative on offer.

When Étienne was a teenage hunter, he often read how-to manuals about living in the wilderness. They were full of practical tips for weathering perilous situations. “They’d say things like, ‘If you’re starving in a forest, catch a hare and then cook it in a hole with some hot rocks,’” Étienne recalls. He doesn’t see a disconnect between his past identity as a hunter-trapper and his present vocation as a maker of vegan meat. “Both,” he says, “are all about survival.”

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Photo illustration: Monica Guan; Photos: Unsplash and Whiteboard Foods

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