Olivia Falcigno / NPR
Earlier today I ate a scoop of chocolate ice cream – creamy and pleasantly oily mouthfeel. This would hardly seem newsworthy, except for the high-tech ingredient that made my frozen goodness go down so smoothly: dairy proteins produced in a lab, no cows needed.
The rich plant-based meat substitutes have been getting a lot of buzz lately. Think the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat – companies that use biochemistry to mimic the taste and texture of meat using plant-based ingredients. There is another boundary along these lines – start-ups that use microbes to make eggs, dairy and other animal proteins without the animals.
Their pitch: Sustainability. Animal husbandry uses a lot of water and land resources, and produces significant amounts of greenhouse gases.
"If you can produce only proteins you want without keeping a live animal alive, it will be much more efficient, so it is better for the environment, "says Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute, which promotes plant and cell-based alternatives to animal protein. And he says when technology is scaled up, it should be much cheaper to produce proteins this way.
Among the early players in this field is Perfect Day, manufacturer of the aforementioned ice cream. The company took the genetic code for the major proteins in whey, a by-product of cheese production, and then artificially synthesized it into a molecule of DNA – so the process is "completely animal-free," says Perfect Day co-founder Ryan Pandya. Then genetically engineered microbes to produce the same proteins through fermentation.
"Just as cows eat plants and make milk, it turns out that [micro] flora can eat plants and make milk. And that's all we've done," Pandya says.
"The process is very simple," he says. You take a tank of microbes, feed them, and they turn into milk protein. "Then you set it out with filtration and drying, and you're done."
Why focus on whey? In frozen desserts, whey protein provides velvety texture – Perfect Day released its ice cream in a limited run of around 1,000 3-pint boxes as a kind of proof of concept to introduce consumers to the technology. (Bonus: It is also lactose-free.)
But the company's goal is actually to become an ingredient supplier to all food companies that rely on whey to increase protein levels in a variety of foods, from smoothies to power bars. The target group goes beyond vegans – to everyone.
"Rather than trying to compete with all these big food producers who would otherwise only buy lots of whey protein from factory-bred cows, we can actually give them a better supply chain, and in that way we can have a lot more impact than we would have done on their own, "says Pandya.
Other companies that want to shake up the food supply include Motif Ingredients, which launched earlier this year with $ 90 million investor funding. It aims to produce proteins derived from dairy, eggs and meat using microbial fermentation and supply them to food producers looking for alternatives to animal proteins.
Clara Foods uses a similar synthetic biology process to make egg white proteins, including a highly soluble protein that will be used in sports drinks and other beverages. It could hit the food market early next year, says Ranjan Patnaik, vice president of technology strategy and operational excellence. Another protein in the pipeline can be used as egg whites – think vegan meringues and baked goods.
"We've made all kinds of pound cake, meringue, other recipes" in their San Francisco Bay area development lab, says Patnaik.
New Culture, another California startup that is still in the incubator stage, also targets dairy: It wants to use microbes to make casein, the protein that gives cheese its lasting quality – which, unfortunately, many vegan cheeses look like to be missing, says co-founder Inja Radman.
If all this sounds a little too futuristic, consider this: Much of the cheese produced today already relies on the same technology in the form of running, an enzyme used to throw milk. Cheese producers used to get it from the stomachs of slaughtered calves, but for many years now much of the race used for cheese has been made via microbial fermentation, Friedrich notes.
Given that this technology is already out there and that proteins produced by synthetic animals are exact genetic copies of the real thing, the companies that do not expect major barriers with regulators by the Food and Drug Administration.
Some critics – such as Dana Perls, senior food campaigner for the Friends of the Earth environmental group – are concerned that the FDA will not provide adequate scrutiny of this new wave of synthetic proteins. Perls worries that the adoption of these proteins will make our food supply even more dependent on the fruits of biotechnology. "The real solution to climate and animal welfare problems is the truly organic, plant-based sources of protein and organic solutions for smaller and better meats," says Perls.
Much of the big dairy is not on board either. For one thing, says Alan Bjerga of the National Milk Producers Federation, an industry group representing dairy producers, products made with synthetic dairy proteins may not have the same nutritional profile – like vitamin and mineral content – as those made with real cows milk.
"We want to make sure that consumers are very informed that these are not the same nutritional," he says.
However, others in the food industry have embraced the new startups. Archer Daniels Midland, a global ingredient and food processing company, has partnered with Perfect Day. Fonterra, a multinational dairy giant based in New Zealand, is an investor in Motif Ingredients. And Clara Foods has teamed up with Ingredion, which supplies ingredients to the food and beverage industry.