There’s a plant-based alternative to pretty much every dairy product out there these days. From vegan ice cream to vegan quark, it’s a growing market, with nut and oat alternatives going particularly strong.
While vegans still only make up less than 1% of the population in the UK, vegan dairy is transcending the diet, with an impressive £517m worth sold in the UK last year (Kantar) – up 13% from last year.
But there is an ‘alternative to the alternatives’ coming. Animal-free dairy is a term used to describe milk, cheese and yoghurt made with animal proteins but without the involvement of an actual animal.
A sibling of the lab-grown meat concept, animal-free dairy has already been sold to consumers in America, with companies there starting to attract serious investment as the hunt continues for sustainable, healthy alternatives to conventional milk that taste just like the real thing – a trick that is said to elude many in the plant-based milk industry.
So, who are the major players in the animal-free dairy rush, what methods are being used and what are the launch products edging their way towards the market?
Last month, New Culture – a US-based animal-free cheese start-up – secured $3.5m in seed money from Kraft Heinz. This investment was made through the food giant’s investment fund Evolv Ventures, which targets new companies that are “transforming the food industry.”
Founded in 2018 in New Zealand, New Culture uses fermentation instead of cows to produce their dairy products, which are “sustainable, healthy, ethical and indistinguishable from animal-based dairy cheese in taste, texture and function.”
The New Culture method centres around the creation of casein – a protein typically found in mammalian milk – through microbial fermentation. Put simply, they insert DNA into microbes which are ‘instructed’ to produce the required proteins. These proteins are then added to plant-based fats and sugars and put through the traditional cheesemaking process.
“We want to disrupt one of the oldest and largest food industries in the world by producing a better dairy cheese for anyone to enjoy – whether you’re a cheese lover, lactose-intolerant, vegan, environmentally conscious or health-conscious,” said Matt Gibson, CEO and co-founder.
“We can make delicious cheese with no cholesterol and low saturated fat with just casein micelles and plant-based sugars and fats.”
New Culture plan to release their first product, a fresh mozzarella, to consumers at the end of 2020.
Silicon Valley milk
Fellow American-based start-up Perfect Day, who are tackling animal-free milk, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream, have already started to offer their products to the public.
As with New Culture, Perfect Day uses fermentation to produce dairy products through a process that they say is like craft beer brewing.
Founded in 2014, the cellular agriculture start-up secured their own funds from investment last year, to the tune of $27.7m – said to be among the largest first rounds of funding for food tech ever.
Perfect Day ferment yeast and cow DNA to create the crucial casein proteins, as well as whey. These are then processed with sugar, plant fats and other nutrients, with the Silicon Valley-based company claiming that the finished product is not only ‘vegan’ (because it doesn’t come from animals) and lactose-free, but also contains all the nutritional benefits of conventional dairy protein. It also tastes the same.
Their first product, a range of animal-free ice creams, went on sale during the summer and cost a whopping $20 per pint. Despite the cost, the limited-edition run of 1,000 three-packs – a pint each of Milky Chocolate, Vanilla Salted Fudge and Vanilla Blackberry Toffee – sold out almost immediately on the company’s website.
The company has plans to shelve their online distribution method going forward and will look to forging deals with manufacturers and brands to eventually become a ‘dairy’ supplier.
‘No stomach-roiling lactose’
Motif Ingredients, a major US biotech company, have their own plans for distribution, having secured over $25m added investment in August for their animal-free meat and dairy operation. Rather than create their own products, the company wants to supply lab-grown, animal-free meat and dairy, and plant-based proteins.
It’s not all expansion and profit in the animal-free dairy realm, however, as proved by the grassroots non-profit Open Science collective, Real Vegan Cheese.
Also founded in 2014, RVC had their breakthrough last year, producing a cheese that has “cheese proteins identical to traditional animal-based dairy cheeses, but without animal suffering, a lot less greenhouse gas emissions, and no stomach-roiling lactose.”
Again, the essential milk proteins are created through yeast-led fermentation, with these then combined with water and vegan oils to create vegan milk. This is then converted into cheese through standard cheese-making processes.
With the dairy industry still rocking from the last few years of the plant-based storm, the fledgling animal-free dairy industry – backed by investors’ growing millions – could offer another way to address consumer concerns like animal welfare and environmental sustainability, but with the added bonus of tasting like traditional milk.