If Milk Can Be Made in a Petri Dish, Do We Need Cows?

Food start-ups are using technology to remake basic ingredients from the ground up.

(Photo: Morten Olsen/Getty Images)

Nov 18, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Kyle Chayka is a writer for publications including Newsweek, The Guardian, and Pacific Standard.

Dairies are some of the noisiest, priciest, and most complicated farming operations around, with stables full of animals hooked up daily to a mass of machinery. What if we could take those vulnerable, environmentally unfriendly cows out of the equation and build dairy products in a lab instead?

Traditionally, cooking is a bottom-up process in which we take raw ingredients from nature, throw them together however we see fit, add heat to incite chemical change, and consume. But advances in technology and changing attitudes toward food are breaking down that process even further. The next generation of food companies is tinkering with biotech to rebuild those natural ingredients compound by compound—and improve them in the process.

Companies such as Muufri, which is pioneering a chemically engineered version of milk; Real Vegan Cheese, the creators of a better nondairy cheese; and Beyond Meat, which offers the next generation of meat substitutes that are indistinguishable from the real thing, are incorporating natural techniques into their innovation process. They’re also upping the nutritional value while lessening the environmental impact of basic foods that we already consider the building blocks of a healthy diet.

Rather than choosing between industrial food and niche artisanal, local products from the farmers market, these companies are charting a new path, using science as a way to solve dietary problems on a massive scale. That is, if they can get consumers to eat their products.

The first step in building these new foods is determining how their organic counterparts are made, and then copying that. But instead of figuring out the ingredients in, say, bread, and making it from scratch, you’re breaking down milk into its individual compounds. Craig Rouskey, the cofounder of Real Vegan Cheese, describes the process as being much like the way cheese is naturally made—save for the first step. “We use traditional cloning methods to produce DNA plasmids that encode for cow milk proteins,” he says. “These milk proteins are then purified [and] combined with vegan fat and sugar to make real vegan milk.” While some die-hard vegans might disagree with that designation, the process takes many of the animal welfare concerns out of the picture.

That milk is turned into cheese the same way cow or goat or sheep milk is—through an enzyme that curdles the liquid. “We are not chemically creating anything,” Rouskey says.

The team first takes the genetic sequences that create milk protein from cow DNA, then produces clones of the genes that can be grown in yeast, leaving the animal behind altogether. The milk protein genes are inserted into yeast cells, which then produce more of the protein as it grows. That biohacked protein can finally be extracted from its yeast host before getting mixed into the initial milk needed to make cheese. It’s the same chemical compound but created entirely in a lab rather than in a field.

Muufri shares this strategy. “Using the same principles of biotechnology behind beer or vegetarian rennet, Muufri will make milk that tastes and functions just like animal-produced milk,” its website reads. Because of that bottom-up process, it’s possible to cut down on the lactose in that new milk or “leave out bad cholesterol for a much healthier product,” according to the site. (The company declined to comment for this article.)

The resulting milk from Muufri is indistinguishable from a regular gallon. But Real Vegan Cheese is a departure from the vegan cheese currently stocked at the health food store, cast in a strange orange color with a thick consistency because of its heavy reliance on nut paste. Aside from being more approachable as a cheese substitute, Real Vegan Cheese also dodges the need for cows, animals “that produce so much methane that they are contributing to global warming,” Rouskey says. “Instead of getting the milk from the cow, we get cow milk from yeast. The cheese-making process is the same.” Using nuts to make cheese has a similarly heavy environmental impact—one gallon of water is used to grow a single almond, a recently viral statistic showed. In comparison, a gallon of water could directly create a gram of cheese, according to Rouskey.

Both start-ups are a long way from having a consumer product and surely have difficult regulatory hurdles to overcome before hunks of cheddar made from lab-grown milk begin showing up at the grocery store.

In a rare move, Real Vegan Cheese, which was originally funded through Indiegogo, is making all of its recipes and chemistry open-source—meaning anyone can go through the same processes. It’s part of the company’s larger goal of changing the food landscape for good. “We want people to improve on our work; we want people to use our work to make food for themselves. Why would we privatize anything?” Rouskey says. “I see food production shifting toward being healthy for people and the environment.”

Making a healthier, technologically engineered food product is one thing, but getting customers to incorporate it into their diet is another. After all, artisanal meat companies such as Belcampo are putting out premium, environmentally positive products in a shape we’re all familiar with—cows. These new endeavors have their work cut out for them in convincing picky eaters.

“If you want people to embrace product, it has to be better than what they’re already using,” says Ethan Brown, founder of Beyond Meat. Brown started the company in 2009 to develop “a very cheap protein that would replace animal protein,” he says. “When you think about what meat is, it’s really five things: amino acids, lipids, carbs, minerals, and water—none of those things are in any way exclusive to the animal. So you could take those from plants and realign them.”

As opposed to biohacking operations such as Real Vegan Cheese, Beyond Meat is simpler, isolating protein from peas and soy rather than creating it from yeast. The first product the company developed was a poultry-style protein that, after years of testing, was so close to the real thing that Whole Foods accidentally used it in place of chicken for three days without any complaints.

The company’s goal is to reduce meat consumption by 25 percent by 2020 while working in harmony with the planet and consumers alike by hacking food to be better than ever. “The reason [Beyond Meat] is better is it has more protein than beef, more iron than steak, more antioxidants than blueberries, and it tastes great,” Brown says. “Why don’t we make the ultimate animal?”

These new foods are taking old strategies and simple logic to make replacements tastier, healthier, and more sustainable. It might seem strange initially, but cooking has always been about innovation. “Food production is technology,” Rouskey says. “Technology, if it’s used properly, can offer a productive, healthy, and responsible way for the world to eat.”