Synthetic milk startups are shaking up the dairy industry

Synthetic milk startups are shaking up the dairy industry

In 1931, Winston Churchill predicted the rise of animal-free food. At the time an opposition MP in his wild years, Churchill wrote an essay imagining life in 50 years. “Synthetic food, of course, will be used in the future,” he wrote.

The artificial substance would be “virtually indistinguishable from natural products and any change will be so gradual that it escapes observation,” Churchill wrote. “Microbes, which currently convert nitrogen from the air into proteins that animals live with, will be encouraged and made to work under controlled conditions just like yeast is now.”

Although several decades later than expected, Churchill’s prediction was confirmed by the development of lab-grown meat and, more recently, animal-free dairy.

Synthetic milk has emerged as a new potential alternative to cow’s milkunlike the vegetable milks of oats, nuts and soy claims to replicate its taste, appearance and mouthfeel. Described by experts as the future of milk, it was touted as an environmentally friendly option that could shake up the dairy industry and leave small farmers in trouble.

Related: How to make sausage: the serious matter of fake meat

“Laboratory-grown milk is considered the next food frontier,” says Dr Diana Bogueva, of the Sustainability Policy Institute at Curtin University, citing the growing popularity of alternatives to milk. Compared to dairy, synthetic milk is likely to have a lower carbon footprint and cause less pollution, obviously eliminating animal welfare issues, she says.

The sector is rapidly expanding. In the United States, cow’s milk protein produced by the Perfect Day company is now widely used in products including ice cream, cream cheese, chocolate, and protein powders. Another American startup, New Culture, is marketing a synthetic milk-based mozzarella, while the Israeli company Remilk has set up a giant factory in Denmark for the production of cheese, yogurt and ice cream.

It will take some time for cow-free milk to hit Australian supermarkets, but startups like All G Foods and spin-off company CSIRO Eden Brew are competing to bring the products to market within the next couple of years.

Yeast of Eden

Chemically, milk is mostly water, around 87%, to be precise. Milk solids include the rest: fats, proteins, sugars – mainly lactose – and minerals. Under Australian law, at least 3.2% of the liquid in whole milk must be fat and another 3% protein.

Most synthetic dairy companies are focusing on producing milk proteins using a process known as precision fermentation. It involves the genetic programming of yeast or other microorganisms using synthetic DNA to produce a specific protein. Jim Fader, the co-founder of Eden Brew, compares the process to brewing beer.

“We use yeast to make a protein to make a drink. They use yeast to make alcohol to make a drink, ”she says.

In cow’s milk there are at least 20 proteins, of which about 80% are casein proteins, present in the curd; the rest are whey protein, perhaps more familiar as a component of protein powder shakes.

The casein aggregates, called micelles, give the milk its characteristic appearance and heat stability.

“Micelles play a vital role in many parts of milk,” says Fader. “For example, when it binds to calcium, it makes milk appear white. If you want to froth your milk and put it in your cappuccino, the ability of milk to resist that heat and to be able to form bubbles… also depends on the micelles ”.

cows

Synthetic milk technology is not “trying to move the cows everywhere from the dairy,” but “increasing supply,” says Jim Fader. Photograph: Reuters

Eden Brew is making six proteins that are most abundant in milk. Once fermented, these will be purified and dried.

A key investor in the company is New South Wales dairy cooperative Norco, which will be responsible for rehydrating and blending the proteins. Other components such as minerals and coconut-based fat will be added at this stage. The final product will be lactose-free, with a small amount of table sugar used to approximate the sweetness of cow’s milk.

Fader says the company will launch an ice cream – simpler than milk because it can only be made with two proteins – around December next year. Milk will follow, likely in August 2024.

All G Foods is focusing its efforts on whey protein. The company’s plant-based meat products are already served in commercial hamburger chains and sold in some supermarkets.

The company’s chief scientific officer, Jared Raynes, says the ultimate goal is to produce yogurt, cheese and fresh milk. But the company’s focus for now is on beta-lactoglobulin, the main protein in whey.

“We will apply for regulatory approval with our protein powder,” he says.

Parallel with synthetic fabrics

Milena Bojovic, who is completing a PhD from Macquarie University, says that while the promise of fresh cow-free milk has been widely trumpeted, the impact of synthetic dairy products is likely to be greater on products like powdered milk.

“Fresh milk consumption is on the decline,” he says, and consumers may be wary of drinking a synthetic version of a natural product. He points out that even the traditional dairy production is “very technologically mitigated, from the conception to the birth of the calves up to the milking process”.

“If synthetic milk really takes off, I think the biggest disruption will be if it can be pulverized and used in the ingredient space … as an additive like milk solids, which are found in many processed foods,” says Bojovic. “I don’t think most consumers are wondering where the milk solids in their KitKat come from.”

“If and perhaps when that happens, this will be a major disruption for dairy industries that produce exclusively for export in the form of powdered milk.”

Related: Man versus Food: Will Lab Grown Meat Really Solve Our Ugly Agricultural Problem?

Bojovic, who has analyzed global dairy industry trends as part of her research, is concerned that technological advances may leave farmers behind. Big dairy players like Norco and Fonterra, a New Zealand multinational cooperative, have started investing in the production of synthetic proteins.

“Small-scale operations will really struggle in the context of the global consolidation of the dairy sector,” he says. “There is more pressure on farmers to innovate and also to invest in technology to make sure they are up to the standard that big companies are at.”

Bojovic sees parallels with the rise of synthetic fabrics. “When synthetic fibers hit the market, it decimated the wool industry in many regions,” he says. “This is not the first time that farmers have faced the threat of synthetics, but they have adapted, they have innovated.”

Interactive

Melissa Cameron, Head of Human Health and Nutrition Policy at Dairy Australia, says it has yet to be seen how consumers will respond to a synthetic product. She points to statistics which suggest that 58% of Australian households only buy fresh, long-life cow’s milk.

“People aren’t giving up on dairy products,” he says. “The commercialization of proteins and synthetic products on a scale that makes these products widely available to consumers is still a long way off. As our populations grow around the world, synthetic products will provide complementary proteins and products. There will be room for everyone “.

World demand for dairy products grew 36% between 2007 and 2017 and is projected to continue to increase as the world population increases and per capita consumption increases.

Fader says the technology companies like Eden Brew are developing is “less about trying to move cows anywhere from dairy.” Rather, “it is about increasing the current supply because demand is expected to increase a lot”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.