We’ve been writing about “fishless fish” and its beef counterpart quite a bit lately, and for good reason. The environmental impact of animal based agriculture is staggering; even grass-fed cattle raised well outside of industrial feedlots are responsible for carbon emissions.
Entrepreneurs and scientists are becoming great collaborators to develop tasty alternatives that can be healthy for the planet and humans.
With advances in synthetic biology, researchers and entrepreneurs strive to create cows’ milk without cows.
In recent years, the alternatives to conventional cows’ milk have proliferated. The local grocery store is likely to offer any number of plant-based options: milks made from soy, almonds, oats, rice, hemp, coconuts, cashews, pea plants and more.
But most nondairy milks pale in comparison to cows’ milk. Plant-based milks are made by breaking down plants and reconstituting their proteins in water to resemble the fluid from a lactating bovine. These proteins differ fundamentally from true dairy proteins, and the results — milks, cheeses and yogurts in name only — often fail to measure up in color, taste or texture. Inja Radman, a molecular biologist and a founder of New Culture, a food company, put it plainly.
“Vegan cheese is just terrible,” she said. “As scientists, we know why it doesn’t work. It doesn’t have the crucial dairy proteins.”
Dairy tastes like dairy thanks to two key proteins, casein and whey protein. Researchers at several start-up companies, including New Culture, have begun producing these proteins in the lab, with the aim of creating a new grocery store category: cow-free dairy.
Their process is loosely comparable to the way Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat makes meatless burgers. Microbes, such as yeast, are given the genetic instructions to produce the dairy proteins. The microbes are then cultivated en masse, with nutrients added and the temperature adjusted. Eventually the organisms start churning out large quantities of the proteins, and these are isolated and added to various recipes.
For the Impossible Burger, the essential protein is a molecule called heme, which is abundant in animal muscles and gives the burger its meaty flavor, and even makes it appear to bleed. New Culture is focusing on producing casein, a protein that coagulates to give mozzarella cheese its stretchy texture.
Ms. Radman said the company had conducted double-blind tests to see if people could tell the difference between the proof-of-concept cheese and store-bought mozzarella. “We’ve had really positive results,” she said.
The quest for cow-free dairy is expanding. In Oakland, scientists at a community science lab are trying to make their own open-source recipe for lab-made cheese. And a start-up in Boston called Motif Ingredients is engineering a variety of proteins from dairy, eggs and meat.
Another company, Perfect Day (originally Muufri), may be the furthest along in perfecting a recipe for lab-made dairy. The company produces whey protein and mixes them with other ingredients found in traditional dairy — fats, carbohydrates, calcium and phosphates. In early July, a limited-edition batch was released, with flavors including chocolate, vanilla salted fudge and vanilla blackberry toffee; it quickly sold out.
Hundreds of thousands of metric tons of whey and casein are consumed in the United States each year, virtually all of it produced by dairy farms. Proponents of lab-made milk see the product appealing to dairy lovers broadly, while satisfying concerns about animal welfare and environmental sustainability. But to make a real impact on the planet, and eliminate the carbon emissions from all those belching cows, a great many microbes will need to be corralled.
The challenge is scaling up. Perfect Day plans to sell its lab-made whey to ice cream-makers, dairy companies and restaurants rather than directly to consumers. It has also partnered with agriculture giant Archer Daniels Midland, with its industrial-scale fermentation infrastructure, to try to meet market demand and reduce the cost of producing proteins.
“That’s what the two of us spend the most of our time on now,” said Perumal Ghandi, a founder of Perfect Day. “Sure, we have A.D.M., but even if we max them out, it’s still just a drop in the bucket.”
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