Lab-grown meat is getting a lot of attention, and it’s not hard to see why — creating an ethical, more environmentally friendly version of meat is appealing, especially as the price continues to go down. But it’s not just meat: the entire range of animal products may be getting a rehash soon.
The latest addition to the list is milk, or rather, dairy in its entirety. Several companies have developed their own type of cowless milk but the products haven’t really hit the market. But that may change as now, the food giants are also entering the scene.
Unilever, one of the largest food companies in the world, is reported to be looking at producing dairy ice creams without using milk derived from cows. This would go into Ben & Jerry’s ice creams, one of the company’s brands.
The process involves a type of precision fermentation in which yeast and fungi are used to produce milk proteins that are identical to animal milk molecule for molecule. It’s exactly the same thing, and to make it even better, this process enables the customization of the milk as well.
At a recent press event, Andy Sztehlo, head of Unilever’s research and development in ice cream told reporters that the company is working with several startups on such products and Sztehlo himself had tasted some prototypes last week.
Like with lab-grown meat, the draw of the product lies with more conscious consumers. Since the products would actually contain dairy, they wouldn’t be branded as dairy-free, but they wouldn’t come with the associated animal cruelty problems — notably, dairy cows are repeatedly impregnated through artificial insemination and have their veal taken from them early on (the veal is then sold as meat). Furthermore, lab-grown dairy has another advantage over lab-grown meat: many people are intolerant or allergic to lactose, and the grown milk could be tweaked to bypass this allergy.
So while the products will still contain dairy, they will become accessible to a greater part of the population who either can’t consume regular dairy or don’t want to, for ethical reasons.
Perfect Day, a company active in the field notes that animal-free milk is also way more sustainable, using “97% less greenhouse gas emissions, 99% less blue water consumption and 60% less nonrenewable energy use” when “compared to whey proteins found in traditional milk.” As the climate crisis intensifies and reducing the consumption of animal beef and dairy is one of the most impactful individual actions, this side also becomes more appealing. Flying under the radar, non-animal milk seems to be gearing up to become a highly disruptive technology.
It’s also happening pretty fast. Sztehlo expects the ice cream product to be available in about a year, and if Unilever can pull it off, it will send a huge signal throughout the industry. It’s not clear how cost-effective the product will be, but scaling production (as you’d expect a large company to do) can also reduce costs significantly.
Precision fermentation has been around for some time. In one form or another, it’s been used for over 30 years, but mostly, it’s been used for things like detergents or insulin, and only in the past few years it’s been moved to foods.
The potential for non-animal dairy extends beyond just ice cream. For almost as long as human civilization has existed, we’ve used milk and dairy. It’s not just yogurt, cheese, or other products — dairy pops up in everything from sauces to mashed potatoes and even hot dogs. In fact, many processed foods contain some form of dairy. Having access to non-animal milk can be disruptive for great swaths of the food industry, not just niches.
Ultimately, though, it will likely boil down to price and taste. If the price and taste will be similar to regular milk, the industry will likely gradually switch to the synthetic option, as it has done so many times before. If it is costlier or if the taste is different, then only a subset of consumers will likely be willing to pay a premium for the more ethical product.