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These scientists want to make real cheese without the cow

Microscopic organisms that grow protein could lead to new, Earth-friendly substitutes for dairy foods

By Jim Sullivan

You’re an adult now. But sometimes you think like the teenager you once were. At this moment, you’re in a restaurant craving a juicy burger and maybe some fries — if they’re not cooked in animal fat. You’ve learned that raising livestock exacts a severe environmental toll. You watched Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscars speech about a milk cow’s “cries of anguish.” You’ve considered going vegan.

And now you have an increasingly popular, meat-like but meat-less option, made by companies like Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat. They’re all the rage in what’s being called the “food-tech” marketplace.

Imagine if, after you order your not-meat burger, the server asks, “Would you like that topped with a cheese-like-but-not-really-cheese dairy product, developed in a lab? And for dessert, may we offer you a nice cold dish of not-quite ice-cream? All of this is lactose-free, of course, and not Frankensteined with soybeans, seeds, nuts or rice.”

In the near future, scientists Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi would like you to have those options — though perhaps phrased more succinctly.

In 2014, Pandya and Gandhi co-founded Perfect Day, a company named after a sublime Lou Reed song. (Their inspiration: a 2001 University of Leicester study that found cows produce more milk when listening to slow, soothing music, including Reed’s 1972 ballad.) Based just outside San Francisco, Perfect Day has been developing a method for producing protein using microflora — animal-friendly microscopic organisms, the type that live in large abundance in the human gut. The goal is to re-create a dairy product — its taste, its texture, the experience of eating it — without any involvement from an actual cow or goat. They’ve created prototypes of dairy-free ice cream and milk, though they’re not for sale in stores yet.

“Any dairy products that can be made with milk are fair game. So, ice cream, cheese, and yogurt are all possible.”

Ryan Pandya, co-founder of Perfect Day

Technically, it starts with a green-spored, microscopic fungus known as Trichoderma, commonly used to control disease in plants, but also used in the beer and wine industry.

“Much like brewing beer starts with yeast, Perfect Day starts with an organism and grows it in a fermentation tank to get protein,” Pandya explained to me in an email. The technology has been used for half a century to make products like vitamins, probiotics, and natural flavors. “Trichoderma produces a lot of protein naturally, and is one of the top performers in the bioproducts industry,” Pandya says.

Pandya won’t reveal more of the process. But the result, he says, is qualitatively different from so-called “vegan” cheese, which is made out of plants: tofu, nuts, tapioca starch. The company’s ice cream and milk are chemically identical to dairy, he says, but grown in a lab, instead of inside an animal. “There are many different organisms you can use to do this, such as yeast, bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms that are friendly to humans,” Pandya says.

“Perfect Day’s protein is exactly the same as the protein that comes from cows,” Pandya adds. “Any dairy products that can be made with milk are fair game. So, ice cream, cheese, and yogurt are all possible.”

And he is betting that the experience of eating what amounts to test-tube dairy will be better than the plant-based alternative — and could drive the market toward a planet-friendly staple in the food supply. Cows are agriculture’s number-one source of greenhouse emissions; their stomach gases include methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The United Nations Environment Program recently highlighted Perfect Day’s work as a step toward sustainable food systems. “Finding alternatives to animal proteins that have lower greenhouse gas emissions are a win-win for consumers and the planet,” said James Lomax, management officer of the UN’s Food Systems and Agriculture Program, for an article on the program’s website.

Before lab-based cheese can change the world, it has to crack the market. Vegan products have increasingly crept into the world of modern eating — fueled by growing attention to animal rights and rising health consciousness. Health specialists have been touting a plant-based diet as a way to lower the risk of heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers.

Today, there are dozens upon dozens of vegan cheese, ice cream, and yogurt products on grocery store shelves. Restaurants with meat-focused menus also offer vegan options. A 2018 analysis by the firm Grand View Research valued the global vegan food market at $12.7 billion — and projected it would expand by nearly 10 percent each year between now and 2025. The website Grocery Dive estimates that the non-dairy ice cream market will be worth $1 billion worldwide by 2024.

We’re still talking niche. About 5 percent of American adults are vegetarian, according to Gallup, and only 2 to 3 percent are vegan.

Still, Perfect Day is betting that audience is looking for new options — perhaps options that don’t have ingredients like cauliflower or peas.

Last summer, the company created a limited run of ice cream — 1,000 units at a jaw-dropping $20 a pint — that sold out quickly. Janelle Bitker, a food reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle, was invited to the company’s headquarters to test the ice cream. They offered “milky chocolate,” “vanilla salted fudge” and “vanilla blackberry toffee.”

Bitker sampled the first two, and wrote them up favorably. “I’ve tried a lot of vegan ice creams and new high-tech plant-based substitute products,” she said by phone, “and this was really striking because it tasted like the conventional product — tasted the same way in my mouth and melted the same way in the bowl.” But wasn’t the most delicious ice cream she’d ever had. “It didn’t taste like an artisanal ice cream. It didn’t have that level of rich and creamy, but more like what you’d buy at a grocery store.”

The ice cream was a one-off, though Pandya says Perfect Day may offer other limited-run products under its own name. Mostly, the company hopes to partner with established food companies — “from small local companies to food manufacturing giants,” says Pandya — to add a lab-based option to their menu of products. The goal is not to supplant the dairy industry, he says, but to work with it. (Think of cola companies getting into the fruit-juice and bottled-water business.)

Last year, Perfect Day connected with Ben & Jerry’s to pitch its work. “They came by to visit us in Vermont,” says Ran Harel, the ice cream brand’s global research and development director. “They have some interesting ideas. We’re not working with them now, but we’re always open to new ways of meeting our fans’ tastes.”

Whether Perfect Day’s lab-grown products can break into other parts of the dairy marketplace — such as high-end cheese shops — is another question.

Rafael Gil, cheese department manager at the specialty food store Zabar’s on New York City’s Upper West Side, says lab-grown cheese could fit into Zabar’s vegan section. “The market is growing,” says Gil, “and this is something we would look into.”

Some are more skeptical. “Anything that isn’t coming from [an animal] source would be a really difficult thing for our clients to put their heads around,” says David Robinson, the buyer for Formaggio Kitchen, a specialty cheese shop with three stores in the Boston area and one in New York. Formaggio gets its cheese from small producers in Europe and the U.S. “We travel, we meet people, we see the cows,” Robinson says. “Cheese created in a test tube is not the complete opposite of what we do, but it goes against the grain of what we do.”

Still, Robinson says a sort-of-dairy product could make a global difference. “We have issues with food we need to solve,” he says. “The prospect for solving an overarching food problem is an amazing possibility. Creating something from nothing might solve a major issue.”

Published on

Jim Sullivan is a writer based in Boston.


Illustration by Mar Hernández


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