A new moo-vement: dairy products that are ‘animal-free’

American company Perfect Day is using craft brewing to create dairy proteins, which could be used in milk, cheese, ice cream and yoghurt.

9 August 2018

First came lab-grown meat and now there’s animal-free cow’s milk.

With research into commercialising cultured meat driven by finding an environmentally friendly way to offer animal products, dairy is also hopping on the conscience train.

The new development comes from San Francisco company Perfect Day, which has created the protein in cow’s milk, but without any involvement from the animal.

It’s the brainchild of Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi, who have raised £18m to commercialise their animal-free dairy – everything from cheese and yoghurt to chocolate milk and ice cream – which they say tastes like the real deal and has the same nutritional value.

Dairy meets beer brewing

Instead of cows doing all the work, Perfect Day has created a process similar to craft brewing.

It combines yeast and cow DNA (which can be 3D printed using synthetic biology techniques) to produce the proteins found in milk. It then throws this mixture into big fermentation tanks with sugar, fats and other nutrients for it to feed on. The fermentation process is similar to how vegetarian rennet (used to create cheese) and vanilla are made.

The process essentially takes plant nutrients and transforms them into animal proteins – just like cows do – but without the cud chewing or udders. Unlike lab-grown meat – where new technology is being invented to create the products – Perfect Day’s techniques have been around for more than three decades, according to the company.

The proteins produced include casein, which is the main protein found in milk and cheese, and also lactoglobulin and lactalbumin, which form the bulk of whey protein in milk. 

Hoofing it down the aisle

So why the name Perfect Day? Two scientists discovered that dairy cows who listen to soothing music like the Lou Reed song 'Perfect Day' are calmer, happier and produce more milk.

It sums up the ethos of the company, which wants to create a better way to manufacture dairy, with a smaller ‘hoofprint’ – meaning less energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, land usage and water consumption.

“We’re against unsustainable and unethical farming practices, which are often used in factory farms. But we wholeheartedly support the countless dairy farmers across the globe that use sustainable farming practices and genuinely care for their animals,” the co-founders said in a statement. “We envision a world where small, family farms can thrive – and there’s enough delicious dairy to feed our growing planet, without having to rely on factory farms.”

Beyond the sustainability factor, Perfect Day’s proteins have features that will have trend spotters rubbing their hands with glee, including being vegan, soy-free, gluten-free and lactose-free, as well as hormone- and antibiotic-free. The company claims the proteins also have a longer shelf life.

Pandya says there are a range of potential applications in foods as well – and not just the standard dairy products either.

“I’m most excited about things you and I would recognise as fresh dairy products such as cheese, yoghurt and ice cream, but what we’ve learned is that dairy ends up in many more places than just the fresh dairy case – pretty much any aisle of the grocery aisle you can think of, there is dairy in there,” he told Food Spark’s sister publication Food Navigator.

“We’re looking at opportunities to replace dairy ingredients in applications already using dairy, and we’re also looking at opportunities to make plant-based products better… but there’s also a third category. Because we’re making these proteins individually, we’re actually able to explore a wider functionality space than what you can do with a set ratio of proteins that you find in cow’s milk. So we’re figuring out what these proteins can do to bring new experiences and functionality to food.”

Moo-ving manufacturing

The company is currently talking to big and small companies about launches early next summer and are working with a large established manufacturing partner to scale up the process.

“Our mission is to empower people to enjoy the dairy products they love, while leaving a kinder footprint on the planet. In order to deliver on that mission and drive the greatest impact, we realised we would be most effective partnering with food and dairy companies to bring a whole variety of new animal-free dairy products to market, not just one single product,” the co-founders said.

But will consumers understand animal-free dairy or does Perfect Day have an uphill battle to gain acceptance? Pandya said the company is doing a lot of work on the right ways to talk about it to minimise confusion.

“There’s a need to differentiate between milk, which is from an animal, and dairy, which I would say refers to the identity of those ingredients. For example, whey protein is also a dairy protein, regardless of where it came from,” he said.

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