Meat and plant-based meat substitutes grown in the laboratory are receiving increasing attention. Technology is driving the industry toward the development of traditionally produced food substitutes. Milk protein may be the next product produced in the laboratory for liquid “milk” production and processing of dairy products such as yogurt and cheese.
Winston Churchill predicted the rise of synthetic food in 1931. “In order to eat chicken breast or chicken wings, we should plant these parts of the chicken separately in the appropriate medium to avoid the ridiculous cultivation of the whole chicken in order to eat chicken breast or chicken wings. Of course, synthetic foods will also be used in the future.”
Although it took more than 50 years, his predictions were made on meat proteins and current dairy proteins.
What is synthetic dairy?
California start-up Perfect Day Inc. reproduces the proteins found in traditional milk without the use of animals. The company has developed a genetically modified microbial population that produces whey and casein through a fermentation process.
This method can be roughly compared to the production of alcohol using brewer’s yeast. Yeast is used in a controlled environment to produce fermentation by-products that use different yeasts to achieve different purposes and yields.
Perfect Day says their products are identical to the proteins in milk. Traditional milk contains about 3.3% protein, of which 82% is casein and 18% is whey. Other major elements are water, fat and carbohydrates.
Perfect Day has a technology that transforms a small portion of the protein in milk, which is arguably the most important ingredient in the production of other foods. The company recommends that its dairy protein be classified as vegan and lactose-free, while providing the same high quality nutrition as traditional dairy proteins. This may be of great appeal to consumers.
Hard to imitate whole milk
Milk produced by cows is a versatile ingredient used in a variety of products around the world. In 2019, more than 70% of the milk sold in Canadian farms was used for further processing, and the rest was consumed as liquid milk.
It may be difficult to produce whole milk that is similar in taste and texture to milk. Protein is just one component of liquid milk; milk fat is another, which is probably the most difficult to imitate plant substitute. When drinking milk, the structure of the cream provides a special taste and mouthfeel, which may be more difficult than adding protein to cheese or yogurt.
Perfect Day’s initial focus was on liquid milk — the one we drank — but the company has shifted its focus to processing products.
Perfect Day has partnered with companies such as food production giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) to move toward full production. The company is one of the world’s largest agricultural processors and food ingredient suppliers with more than 330 production facilities in nearly 200 countries. ADM provides a large amount of raw materials for human and animal consumption; synthetic dairy protein may be the perfect complement to their products.
Products such as yogurt and cheese, unlike liquid milk, may be more suitable for laboratory-cultured casein and whey. Synthetic proteins can be used to replace milk ingredients or to supplement them.
For example, in the production of yogurt, proteins are often added to improve the taste. Different processed products contain different proportions of milk ingredients. This means that fermented casein and whey protein can increase or replace traditional protein components. This is easier to do in products with high protein content.
Despite this, the potential use of animal-free dairy protein far exceeds traditional dairy products such as cheese and yogurt. Hot dogs containing milk powder and granola rolls containing modified milk ingredients are examples of many foods that can use this alternative dairy protein.
How to solve malnutrition?
Ryan Pandya, CEO of Perfect Day, said last year: “We began to study how to use our protein to prevent stunting and malnutrition in developing countries.” This shows that Perfect Day’s focus is on providing raw materials rather than producing milk.
Some products are not suitable for this method. For example, butter is made from cream and contains almost no protein. For a long time, we have always had a plant-based alternative to margarine. But many consumers no longer use margarine, but reuse butter.
Canada’s per capita butter consumption increased from 2.72 kg in 2007 to 3.21 kg in 2016. The increased demand for butter has led to an excess of milk protein in the Canadian and US markets.
Although the economic production of these fermented proteins remains to be seen, their entry into the market may cause significant damage to the dairy industry. Part of the reason is due to the separation of some processed products from traditional dairy products.
Additional supply disruptions can occur as the relative demand for protein and other milk components changes. We are likely to get more protein surplus from traditional dairy and synthetic products.
There are many issues that need to be resolved before these products enter our supermarket. Production economics must work. The product needs to be re-formulated by adding fermented protein and other ingredients to replace the milk ingredient.
Canadian food inspection agencies currently claim that milk is produced by animals. The US Food and Drug Administration has not issued a policy statement on the classification of synthetic milk proteins.
Canada’s milk is also subject to a supply management system that includes production quotas.
Does synthetic casein and whey follow the same system? The regulatory environment will require significant clarification, and any change will be subject to intense debate among the interests of all parties.
Some consumers value the fact that animals do not need to produce these proteins to create vegetarian, lactose-free products. It is also believed that synthetic dairy proteins have less environmental impact.
Other consumers may be concerned that these proteins are produced using genetically modified yeast.
Despite these uncertainties, we may see synthetic dairy products appear on the shelves of grocery stores within a few years.