The search for sustainable, healthy alternatives to meat has two paths: the meat-mimicking veggie burger and lab-grown proteins. But in the land of dairy, there are only plant-based alternatives such as cashew “butter” and almond milk.
Whether you’re milking the animals or slaughtering them, industrial cattle husbandry is bad for the planet. Studies show it to be a key culprit in the climate crisis and a source of localized environmental damage. The refrigerator aisle has been full of plant-based dairy for some time, but now there are a few start-ups that, like the purveyors of cultured meat, want to take dairy one step further.
Already under siege by falling milk sales, Big Dairy lobbyists have been lashing out at makers of plant-based rivals as those competitors’ market share grows. But their next challenger may be coming from the laboratory, in the form of synthetic whey, and investors are already lining up.
While fewer people are drinking cow’s milk, they’re still eating yogurt and cheese, and a crucial protein that comes from making those products is whey. It’s relatively flavorless and incorporates well into a range of food formulations for people of all ages. There’s already a huge market for it: Demand for whey protein and whey-based products is on the rise thanks to consumer demand for protein in all kinds of foods.
The United States is the single largest exporter of whey products, with estimated sales of $10 billion last year. BCC Research said the category will grow 6% annually through 2023. All that whey still comes from cows, a fact increasingly seen as a liability for climate- and health-conscious dairy and protein lovers.
Ryan Pandya saw an opportunity in this consumer conundrum. He wants to be the first to market a non-animal whey protein through his Emeryville, Calif., company, Perfect Day. Like other food start-up founders, Pandya and business partner Perumal Gandhi are vegan. Rather than forgo the taste of real cheese and dairy for poor vegan substitutes, the pair decided to invent their own version of the real thing. The start-up focused on the well-worn food path of microbial fermentation — harnessing custom yeast and bacteria to grow the proteins that make milk taste like milk.
But first, the company and others like it face some big hurdles: consumer squeamishness and regulatory reviews that may end up focusing more on the genetically modified organisms used to make lab-grown whey.
Five years ago, Perfect Day joined the synthetic biology accelerator IndieBio as it searched for microbes that could be engineered to make functional milk proteins. Today it has more than 60 employees and $60 million in funding, and it says it has produced one metric ton of lab-grown whey. (For scale, the United States uses more than 200,000 metric tons of all types of whey annually.)
Late last year, agriculture giant Archer Daniels Midland agreed to invest in Perfect Day as the start-up seeks to lower the cost of making whey. “When you’re creating something that already exists, there is already an established price point,” said Victoria de la Huerga, vice president of ADM Ventures. “The goal for companies that are leveraging new technology to make new food is you have to make it affordable.”
Though it’s still early days, Perfect Day says its proteins require 98% less water and 65% less energy than what’s required to produce whey from cows. The company said it hopes to one day license its ingredients so they can be used by food manufacturers — but those involved concede that scaling the effort won’t be easy.
Still, Perfect Day’s chief technical officer, Tim Geistlinger, said the process is “fully adaptive — you can do it anywhere in the world and it doesn’t matter how hot it is.” Having come over from plant-based burger maker Beyond Meat, Geistlinger said that “if you want to raise your flag on sustainability or tolerance to climate change, this one solves a lot of things.”
While Perfect Day wants to be an ingredient supplier, food start-up New Culture wants to make the end product: cheese from its own lab-grown casein, another protein derived from dairy. In the lab, New Culture has crafted a super-stretchy, believable version of mozzarella — the most consumed cheese in the United States. A third start-up, Motif Ingredients — a spinoff of Ginkgo Bioworks — is using $90 million in funding to focus on lab-grown dairy proteins as flavor and texture ingredients.
Matt Gibson, the New Zealand-born founder of New Culture and a self-described committed vegan, said he didn’t like the nondairy options on the market. “I just don’t think you can make cheese with any of the plant-based proteins,” he said.
There’s even a nonprofit in Oakland working on lab-grown whey. Real Vegan Cheese has been researching how to make multiple casein proteins with bacteria and plans to do the same with yeast. The group said it wants to disseminate its recipe so others can develop their own sustainable, animal-free dairy products.
Non-animal whey protein is new and may require scrutiny by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But Nigel Barrella, a food industry lawyer who is of counsel to the Good Food Institute, said regulators will view lab-made whey as simply another GMO food product. Last month, Perfect Day filed a General Recognized as Safe petition with the FDA, a voluntary request for government review.
“In terms of the FDA’s attitude, it will be near the GMO product: Functionally these are the same,” Barrella said, using corn as an example: “There is no scientifically known difference between corn and GMO corn.”
But there’s still branding to worry about. Few people like to eat something with “lab-grown” on the label, and vegans will probably steer clear of something labeled “milk protein.” As a result, Perfect Day wants to rebrand microbes used in food — yeast, fungi, bacteria — as “flora,” a more consumer-friendly term.
“We are trying to explore how we can get a term for this industry that’s outside of ‘plant-based,’” Pandya said. “Something someone with a plant-based diet can eat, but it’s not from plants. It’s an animal protein, but not from animals.”
On Friday, the company plans to start building its public profile by selling 1,000 pints of ice cream made with lab-grown whey, via its website. “Most of the functionality in ice cream or cream cheese is all about the whey proteins and how it operates with air and water,” Gandhi said.
Still, Nate Donnay, a Minnesota-based director of dairy insight for INTL FCStone, doesn’t see non-animal whey grabbing huge market share soon. “Sitting here in the heartland, no one is caring where the protein came from. They want it cheap and they want a lot of it,” he said. However, “if you can get cost down and the functionality there, the big companies will take it.”
Barrella, the food industry lawyer, said makers of lab-made whey should play to their strong suit.
“I think it will be sold as a benefit of the product — lower environmental footprint,” Barrella said. “It will be incumbent on the producers of these products to market the benefits of these products: milk proteins that don’t come from an animal.”