The race to bring cell-based meat to market currently features a number of contestants, including Memphis Meats, Just, and Future Meat. But meat isn’t the only animal product companies are attempting to manufacture in a lab: the time for cell-based dairy has arrived as well.
Plant-based milks, which currently comprise 13 percent of the American milk market, are generally derived from nuts like almonds or cashews, grains like oats or rice, or legumes like soy. Cell-based milks, on the other hand, are made with synthetic, lab-created whey protein, a process that uses 98 percent less water and 65 percent less energy than producing cow’s milk. But cell-based dairy stands out in another way, too: unlike the cell-based meat industry, which starts with a base of animal cells, cell-based dairy is vegan and lactose-free: no donor animals, no animal products at all.
“We are trying to explore how we can get a term for this industry that’s outside of plant-based,” Ryan Pandya, founder of plant-based dairy startup Perfect Day tells Bloomberg. “Something someone with a plant-based diet can eat, but it’s not from plants. It’s an animal protein, but not from animals.”
Perfect Day has its eye on being the first company to bring non-animal whey to the marketplace. Following five years of development – and armed with $60 million in funding – the company now uses microbial fermentation to program yeast to produce whey.
"Just like cows eat plants and make milk, it turns out [micro]flora can eat plants and make milk,” Pandya tells NPR. “And that's all we've done.”
From there, the possibilities are (nearly) endless. Perfect Day has already managed to use its technology to produce vegan ice cream, distributing 1,000 samples earlier this summer (at $60 for three pints). Other companies are experimenting with similar processes, like New Culture, which is using lab-grown casein to make mozzarella, or Clara Foods, which has used synthetic biology to create egg white protein.
But there are limits to what this technology can do, at least for now. Higher-fat dairy products, like whole milk and butter, may be more difficult to create in a lab than low-fat or non-fat milk and yogurt.
“Protein is just one component of fluid milk,” reports The Conversation. “The structure of milk fat provides a specific taste and mouth feel when drinking milk, and this may be a tougher formulation challenge than creating proteins to be used in cheese or yogurt.”
That said, Perfect Day’s goal isn’t necessarily to mass-produce milk – or even ice cream. Rather, the company intends to supply its whey protein to other industry leaders.
"Rather than try to compete with all these big food makers that are otherwise just going to buy a ton of whey protein from factory-farmed cows, we can actually give them a better supply chain and in so doing, we can have a lot more impact than we would on our own," Pandya tells NPR.
In this way, this new technology would help reduce our reliance on factory-farmed animal products – and the impact on the environment and the planet's resources.
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