Milk, cheese and ice cream without the cow entered the marketplace

Cow-free milk is here, with the potential to shake up the future of animal dairy and plant-based milks.

Left, Becky Reith works in the food innovation lab at Perfect Day. That’s right, a kid pours a Cowabunga brand “animal-free milk drink” made with Perfect Day enzymes. (Carolyn Fong for The Washington Post)


BERKELEY, Calif. — The first course was celery root soup rich with whole milk. The last was a spice cake topped with maple cream cheese frosting served with a side of ice cream. And then milk with its fat cap of shiny foam. All in all, a delicious lunch. Maybe a little heavy on the dairy.

Only this milk was different. It was not the product of a cow or a soybean or a nut. The main ingredient of this milk was made by microbes in a laboratory, transformed into a delicious and recognizable food, and then served to a hungry reporter.

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Dozens of companies have sprung up in recent months to develop milk proteins made from yeasts or fungi, including Perfect Day, the California milk company that put out this unusual spread. The companies’ products are already on store shelves in the form of yogurt, cheese and ice cream, often labeled “animal-free.” The burgeoning industry, which calls itself “precision fermentation”, has its own trade organization, and big-name food companies such as Nestlé, Starbucks and General Mills have already signed on as customers.

The rapid progress in this area has raised hopes of a revolution in the dairy industry, and not just because it is kinder to the cows. Precision dairy has no cholesterol, lactose, growth hormones or antibiotics (although those with milk allergies should be careful). And livestock, for beef or milk, is said to be the number 1 agricultural source of greenhouse gases worldwide. Consumers concerned about climate change or animal welfare have been anticipating the US launch of cultured meat, which is grown in labs from animal cells, but cultured dairy could have just as much of an impact on the environment — with fewer regulatory hurdles to clear.

Despite widespread acceptance of soy, oat, and almond milk, American consumers, even vegan ones, continue to be underserved by plant-based cheese options: Mostly made from starch and oil, they often lack the flavor or texture (without sticky strings, not enough). bounce) of real cheese. And cheese is particularly troublesome for the environment, more so than its liquid counterpart: Making one pound of cheese requires 10 pounds (or about five quarts) of cow’s milk. The World Economic Forum and many scientific reports suggest that cheese generates the third highest emissions in agriculture after beef and lamb.

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For Ryan Pandya, chief executive of Perfect Day, those are the problems he solves. But it really started as a bagel problem.

While studying chemistry and bioengineering at Tufts, he became a vegetarian but still had a craving and taste for animal products.

“I had a vegan cream cheese bagel that was so bad it made me do some research. What is so difficult about this? Many milk alternatives are not made from food,” he said with a grimace.

He hit upon a process called precision fermentation, similar to what has been used for decades to make beer, make insulin for diabetic patients, or produce a topping for cheese.

“Rather than using 22nd century technology to produce meat, we use 20th century technology to produce milk protein,” he said.

There are bubbling stainless fermentation tanks, software that maintains temperatures, powered motors and oxygenators. And after the microbes eat their sugar solution and are programmed to make the desired proteins, there is a long process to separate the milk protein from the medium, then wash it and dry it in a spray dryer so that the powder can be used to make food. .

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Beyond the fermentation process, making usable milk proteins is similar to that of regular cow dairies, which have stainless steel tanks, sprayers and freezers, pasteurizers and vacuum pumps, coolers and steamers. “We’re getting the same powder, but these are the cows,” said Irina Gerry, chief marketing officer at Change Foods in Palo Alto, Calif., pointing to the fermenters in their San Jose lab.

The world demand for dairy products continues to increase. But it is not necessarily liquid milk. As countries develop and have burgeoning middle classes, the demand for liquid milk decreases and enthusiasm for cheese and other products rises. The cheese category has grown 19 percent since 2017, according to Mintel’s Future of Cheese 2022 report, with plant-based versions making up a minuscule part of that market.

General Mills, which makes household brands such as Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, Annie’s, Nature Valley and Häagen-Dazs, launched a line of Bold Cultr cream cheeses, first using precision-milk whey proteins from Perfect Day, then from Israeli food technology startup Remilk. . (Last month, General Mills said it was “deprioritizing funding” for these cream cheeses, so its future is uncertain.) Perfect Day’s ingredients are used in Brave Robot ice cream in the U.S., Modern Kitchen cream cheese in the U.S., California Performance Co. protein powder in the US, Singapore and Hong Kong; and Coolhaus ice cream products in the United States and Singapore.

Perfect Day, the first to market in the United States, also partners with Mars, Nestlé, Starbucks, Graeter’s and other companies to provide milk protein for products. Its office is a shiny, multi-story facility in an industrial part of Berkeley, California, which has become a hotbed for food and biotech startups. It has fermentation and separation teams, analysts and regulatory experts, legal and logistics teams, as well as two full-time chefs to prototype products and dishes in an elegant exhibition kitchen. In addition to its Berkeley facility, the company operates a 90,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Bangalore, India and a 58,000-square-foot factory in Salt Lake City.

Change Foods, founded in 2020, has headquarters in both Australia and the United States, and is in the process of building a commercial factory in Abu Dhabi that will produce the volume of animal-free milk protein casein equivalent to the production of 10,000 dairy products. cows Like Perfect Day, it aims to be an ingredient company that supplies its milk protein to other established foods, but it will launch its own branded cheese products in 2025.

Precision Dairy’s growth needs to happen quickly to be competitive on price with traditional animal dairy and gain widespread adoption, said Ravi Jhala, Perfect Day’s global head of commercial. Recent bobbles in plant-based meat sales are a cautionary tale.

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Part of the reason analysts see a bright future for precision dairy is the desire of major food companies to reduce their carbon footprint. Many have trumpeted their sustainability goals, often making promises like having net-zero carbon emissions by 2030, or 2040, or beyond. To get there, they’re turning to companies like Perfect Day, which is partnering with Mars to develop a greener chocolate bar.

But will customers buy it? Is it delicious? Most of the 28 precision dairy companies preparing worldwide sell their milk proteins as ingredients to other food companies, so the finished products are only as good as the food companies making them. One company’s plain cream cheese may be creamy and indistinguishable from cow-based, but another company may decide to solve too many problems at once: Animal-free, sugar-free, fat-free, all-natural and low-calorie. That could be a recipe for a sad schmear or pint, something that could turn off buyers to the entire category.

Consumers are loyal to brands, not ingredients, experts say. And brands can decide what their messaging is to consumers. That General Mills cream cheese? It is marketed as a “lactose-free cream cheese alternative”. Mars describes its new chocolate as a silky smooth chocolate (not an “alternative” to chocolate) that uses “real dairy protein …. without any animal inputs.” The Brave Robot ice cream leans more heavily on the sustainability and cruelty-free aspects. So even the messaging around an exact dairy could be confusing.

“Nestlé and Mars, they have the reach and the customers. They could position these new products as extensions of existing product lines, but the jury is still out on what the labels will say,” said Tony Moses, who is involved in product innovation for CRB , a consulting and manufacturing company for the food and beverage industries. .

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Traditional cow’s milk has pushed back against plant-based milks using words like “milk” or “cheese” in a series of mostly unsuccessful lawsuits. In late February, the FDA announced that oat, soy and almond drinks can keep the word “milk” in their names, but arguments over precise language are likely to reignite as more of these precision dairy products hit the market.

The International Dairy Foods Association opposes any express or implied use of the term “milk” for precision products without qualification in their marketing and branding, said spokesman Matt Herrick.

“Our position is that FDA needs to develop a uniform, mandated disclosure approach to this technology to ensure that labeling is truthful and not misleading to consumers,” he said.

Development of these products comes at a time when there is huge interest in finding alternative protein sources to feed a more sustainable growing global population. However, for an industry in its infancy, the road ahead could have significant roadblocks.

The dairy industry, with its power and hefty lobbying budget, may not agree that there’s room for everyone: In 2022, U.S. cow’s milk yielded 16 percent of all retail milk sales to factories, according to data from SPINS and Plant Based Foods. association

Plant-based dairy companies may not welcome the competition either, especially if cultured dairy products are positioned as more sustainable and less resource-intensive. (A glass of almond milk takes 23 gallons of water to produce, according to the nonprofit Water Footprint Network.)

The industry is also likely to face Americans’ growing discomfort with processed foods. The cow’s milk industry and plant-based companies could join forces to paint these newcomers as Franken foods made by mad scientists in a lab.

And the regulatory path forward is not assured for this fledgling industry. By comparison, CBD-infused foods and drinks exploded a few years ago as more states decriminalized marijuana and cannabis. But after deliberation, in January, the FDA refused to regulate it and asked Congress to intervene. Currently it is still illegal, and CBD food companies are in limbo.

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For many of these venture capital-funded businesses, any one of these hiccups could mean the difference between success and failure.

Stakes are high: TurtleTree in Sacramento and Biomilq in Durham, NC, are both focused on using this technology to produce human breast milk or its components. Last year’s infant formula crisis made it clear that finding enough nutritionally adequate alternatives to breast milk is a national security imperative.

In a sense, lab-grown cultured meat may have cast its ominous shadow over this new dairy technology, leaving it shrouded in mystery.

“This is an industry that has jumped to market faster than I thought it would and part of that is the regulatory hurdles,” Moses said. “Great things are happening in the lab, but it’s that commercialization, that commercialization part, that’s less certain. I look at what Perfect Day is doing. How did this get here without us knowing?”

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