The Next Hottest Alternative Milk Comes from Microbes

MIlk, a remarkable substance that is rich in vitamins and minerals for young mammals, has all the necessary nutrients to help them thrive. Co-opted by humans, cow milk—and to a lesser extent, sheep, goat, buffalo, and camel milk—is a founding food for much of the world, drunk straight, poured over cereal, used to lighten coffee, churned into butter, frozen into ice cream, and baked into desserts. Dosed with rennet—an enzyme produced in a calf’s stomach—it separates into the curds and whey beloved by Miss Muffet, ready to be drained, molded, and fermented into cheese.

Despite the fact that 68% of the world’s population has trouble digesting lactose, a naturally occurring milk sugar, global demand is surging. A total of 998,000,000 tonnes (906 million metric tons), were produced by cow milk in 2020. That’s a 27% increase from 2010. The environment is being harmed by the world’s 270 million dairy cattle. Deforestation and pollution of waterways are two major effects of industrial-scale dairy farming. Cows belch methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as they digest their food, and their manure produces nitrous oxides—which have an even stronger planet-warming effect—when it decomposes. The latest data shows that the global dairy industry produced more than 1,700,000,000 metric tons CO2 in 2015. This is 3.4% of the total emissions. It was also comparable to aviation and shipping. Reducing humanity’s demand for cow milk would go a long way towards reaching the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, and thus minimizing the impacts of a super-heated planet.

Continue reading: The Cow that Could Feed the Planet

Soybeans, peas, oats, rice, hemp, and almonds can also be “milked” into plant-based dairy alternatives with a lighter carbon impact, but they still contribute to deforestation, and often fail on both nutrition and performance. They are higher in sugar and lower in protein; they curdle in coffee, they don’t bake well, and they don’t have the right fats and proteins to make butter or cheese. If ever an industry were in need of disruption, it would be milk—both the kind from cows and the kind from plants.

The disruption that is coming to supermarket shelves will be caused by microbes. More precisely, microbes created by Lizanne Falsetto who brought high protein energy bars into the world in 1994. Falsetto’s Betterland Milk, which will be available via Amazon in late August and in grocery stores by the end of the year, is produced using precision fermentation, a process in which bacteria, yeast, or fungi are genetically manipulated into producing milk proteins that taste and perform like their dairy analogues, no cows required. “This milk will change the way people think about dairy,” she says. This is just one example of how milk proteins can be used. This technology can transform microbes into factories and change the food industry. It will allow for the production not only of milk proteins but also animal fats and growth factors that are used to cultivate meat.

Falsetto’s energy bar company, ThinkThin was sold to a buyer for $217million in 2016. She began thinking about the possibility of launching another project four years after she had been locked down on her California avocado ranch due to the pandemic. You had to make it meaningful and impactful. “If I am going to come out of retirement, I want to disrupt something big,” she remembers thinking to herself. She had no other ideas than an avocado recipe book. Although she was constantly receiving new products from candy and energy bars, little caught her attention until one day a package of powdered protein arrived at her home from Berkeley’s food tech startup. Perfect Day was the company that had discovered how microbes could be manipulated to produce whey protein. Its technology is based on the decades-old technology used in the food and pharmaceutical industries to manufacture insulin. Perfect Day believed their product could be a good replacement for climate-conscious candy bars with its new product.

Out of curiosity more than anything else, Falsetto started playing with the powder, mixing it with peanut butter and chocolate for high protein power balls, then throwing it into her family’s morning smoothies. She was astonished at the texture. It was light and fluffy, creamier than any soy powder she’d used for her protein bars and much more creamy. It was easy to blend it with coconut milk. For decadently creamy lattes, she ran the mixture through her milk frother. The baked goods turned out perfect. That’s when she realized she was on to something. Milk was never her favorite, but she found that plant-based substitutes were incredibly ineffective when it came time to cook and make coffee. Perfect Day was her name. You can forget about the candy bars! “I think we can make milk.”

Perfect Day’s technology works like a higher-tech version of brewing beer. Beer is made when yeast ferments sugars from plants and produces alcohol. Scientists have now been able to modify the genetic makeup of microbes to secrete customized molecules. This is similar to changing one line in a computer program so that it produces a completely different outcome. Tim Geistlinger, Perfect Day’s chief scientific officer, describes the genetic modification process in terms of using the find and replace function in word processing software: “We knock out the gene responsible for secreting one thing”—alcohol, for example— “and insert another”— the cow gene for producing whey protein.

The modified microbes are mixed into a temperature-controlled vat full of liquified plant sugars and left to ferment for several days. After the fermentation process has ended, all the waste products and microbes are removed. Only the proteins are left behind. The proteins that the microbes produce can be genetically altered, but they are not considered GMO-free. The whole process takes two weeks, and the final whey product is identical to that found in cow’s milk, but with a much smaller environmental footprint—production of the protein emits up to 97% fewer greenhouse gasses and 99% less water than that made from traditional milk, according to an independent life cycle assessment.

Perfect Day’s whey protein is now being used as the key ingredient in vegan ice cream, sports nutrition products, and even Mars’ first cow-free milk chocolate bar. Betterland will be Perfect Day’s debut on the dairy aisle, delivering the same cooking, whipping, steaming, frothing, and baking functionality as conventional milk, with none of the lactose, cholesterol, or methane of the original. It is slightly sweeter than cow’s milk and can be used to make a delicious chocolate chip cookie. You can make ricotta from it (hard cheeses that require casein are also possible).

The pharmaceutical industry has used precision fermentation for years. But advances in machine learning, genetics, and gene editing are opening new avenues to food. Washington-based Good Food Institute in Washington (GFI), which promotes plant and cell-based products as alternatives to animal foods, says that more than 88 startups are using precision fermentation. They promise plant-based products with the long-awaited juiciness. Betterland Milk, which combines Perfect Day’s cow-free dairy proteins with plant-sourced oils, straddles the plant-based—precision fermentation divide in much the same way as Impossible’s plant-based burger, which ‘bleeds’ a deep red, umami-rich heme protein that is also produced by precision fermentation.

The nascent industry, which saw investments of more than $1.5 billion over the past two years, is the missing link when it comes to the widespread adoption of animal-free diets, says Liz Specht, GFI’s vice president of science and technology. “Precision fermentation proteins are the so-called ‘hero ingredients’ bringing plant-based products closer to what consumers are looking for—the appropriate mouthfeel and texture, the creaminess and emulsifying properties that plant-based alternatives have historically struggled with.” In a new study, the Boston Consulting Group estimated that with these kinds of technological advancements, alternative proteins will represent 11% of all protein consumption by 2035, leading to a reduction of 0.85 gigatons of CO2 equivalent worldwide by 2030—almost as much as decarbonising the aviation industry.

But doing good for the planet doesn’t come cheap, or at least not yet. Betterland Milk will be available in whole and low-fat versions. It is almost three times as expensive than organic milk and more than twice that of almond alternatives. Falsetto believes climate-aware customers will pay more for her milk, as it addresses many concerns about health, functionality and the environment. “Consumers are thinking about their families and are worried about the future of the planet,” she says. “They’re tired of the trade-offs between taste and health and sustainability.”

Specht from GFI states that consumers so far have agreed to pay up to three times as much for new product made with plant-based ingredients. Once companies scale up, prices drop. Falsetto envisions a similar trajectory for her milk and is already talking with sustainability-minded retailers about nation-wide distribution. One almond can be grown in California with drought, but it requires a gallon and four-five gallons to produce a gallon worth of milk. “That’s just not sustainable,” she says. “If we’re going to do something for our great-great grandchildren, the mentality needs to change. And when I say we, I mean the industry.” Betterland Milk may be more expensive than its competitors, but that is only because conventional industry doesn’t include the environmental costs. She’s taking care of that upfront. “I’m not trying to make a profit now,” says Falsetto. “I’m investing in the future.”

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