From cows to goats to sheep, the availability of dairy is ubiquitous. But with copious environmental and health issues around traditional dairy products, alternatives are in the spotlight more than ever. Now there’s a way to enjoy yogurt, cheese and ice cream without a heavy reliance on animals or nuts. It’s called Precision Fermentation, and it puts an old technology to new use. 

What is precision fermentation?

The process begins with scientists first identifying the DNA sequences that encode for the proteins, fats, flavors, enzymes, vitamins and other ingredients found in dairy products. They then insert these DNA sequences into microorganisms, such as yeast or fungi. These microorganisms are then fermented in tanks, much like beer is brewed. During the fermentation process, the microorganisms produce the desired ingredients, which are then purified and used to make dairy products.

Related: Plant-based eggs surge in popularity amidst shortage

Like other forms of fermentation, temperature regulation, steel tanks and oxygenators are all part of the standard equipment. The difference is that after the desired proteins are produced and separated out, the resulting powder is free of animal ingredients.

“We get to the same powder, but these are the cows,” said Irina Gerry, chief marketing officer at Change Foods in California, pointing to the fermenters in their San Jose lab.

What are the advantages of precision fermentation?

Precision fermentation has several advantages over traditional dairy production. First, it is more sustainable. The production of dairy products using precision fermentation requires less land, water and energy than traditional dairy production.

Second, it is more ethical. No animals are harmed in the production of dairy products using precision fermentation.

Third, it is more consistent. The ingredients produced using precision fermentation are identical to those found in animal products, which means that the dairy products produced using this technology will have a consistent taste, texture and nutritional value. In addition, they are lactose free and void of cholesterol, growth hormones and antibiotics.

What brands are using these dairy products?

There’s somewhere around two dozen precision dairy companies currently in different stages of launch. Perfect Day, a California-based company is leading the pack with products already on the shelves. On the other hand, Change Foods is a newcomer who is preparing to launch a line of powdered milk proteins that can be used as an ingredient, and also has its eyes set on a cheese product line in a few years.

TurtleTree is hoping to use the technology to develop a human breast milk alternative, which would provide a solution to baby formula shortages like we saw last year. Australian startup Eden Brew and U.S.-based New Culture are other notable names in the game.

What’s the future of precision fermentation in dairy?

The outlook for the success of these products is currently strong. Vegans, vegetarians and environmentalists who are concerned about animal welfare and climate change are eager to embrace alternatives to the livestock industry that is said to be the leading source of greenhouse gasses in the world. 

Although nut milks have filled the void for milk products, many non-dairy options of cheese have fallen short in regard to texture, taste and meltability. Precision fermentation products are perched to remedy this gap in the market with all forms of dairy foods that are more palatable as well as environmentally sustainable. 

Big-name brands have pounced on the opportunity to incorporate precision fermentation products, including contracts from Nestlé, Mars, Starbucks and General Mills. Perfect Day products can also be found in dairy products by Brave Robot, Modern Kitchen, California Performance Co. and Coolhaus.

But how do they taste and are they really a viable and sustainable solution to the pollution and other ravaging effects of the cattle industry? The jury is still out on this one, since the industry is so young. Most companies are currently only producing the base ingredient, which means food manufacturers are the ones putting them to use in new recipes. Inasmuch, we can expect a wide variety of qualities, tastes and performance of those final products being developed from the protein base. 

What about regulations for the precision fermentation industry?

As new technologies emerge, regulations are playing catch up. However, with the focus on informative and accurate food labeling in recent years, it stands to reason there’s precedence to monitor what’s happening in the precision fermentation world. 

“Precision fermentation dairy’s growth has to happen fast to be price-competitive with traditional animal dairy and to gain widespread adoption,” said Ravi Jhala, Perfect Day, Global Head, Commercial. 

With that in mind, the industry may get ahead of the regulations in the short term. After all, it’s currently up to companies to decide whether to market a product as “lactose-free, animal-free, dairy alternative, etc.” Moreover, at some point, we may need to redefine the category as separate from dairy altogether. 

Then there is the influence of the mighty powerful cow dairy industry, who has shown its stance in the fight against plant-based food and beverage companies who use common dairy labels like milk and cheese — ultimately without success so far.

To summarize, International Dairy Foods Association spokesman Matt Herrick said, “Our position is that FDA must develop a uniform, mandated disclosure approach to this technology to ensure labeling is truthful and not misleading for consumers.”

While the industry is ready for exponential growth as a solution for environmental damage, animal welfare, finding a viable protein source for less-developed populations and serving a void in the dairy-alternative market, there are likely to be growing pains for the industry as a whole while the weight of the dairy industry shoves against regulatory committees and the courts. 

Via Washington Post

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