Cows Need Not Apply: Synthetic Vegan Lab Milk on the Horizon

A company called Perfect Day hopes to create milk in a lab, eliminating the need for dairy cattle. Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images

It's possible that a few years from now you'll walk into a coffee shop and order a latte, and the barista will ask, "Whole, skim, soy, almond, or ... animal-free lab-grown dairy milk?" If you choose that last option, what you'll be getting in your drink is a fluid that looks, tastes and feels just like cow's milk, has nearly the same nutrient profile, but is vegan and cholesterol-, lactose-, hormone- and antibiotic-free. Sound miraculous? That's all because it was made in a lab instead of an udder.

Over the past decade we've heard so much about lab-grown meat that some of us might consider eating a 3-D printed steak if it were plopped on the plate in front of us. Now Perfect Day, a small Berkeley, California-based food tech startup previously known as Muufri, thinks we're ready for a milk substitute made by feeding sugar to a genetically modified strain of dairy yeast they call Buttercup — and letting fermentation do the rest.

Buttercup might not have big brown eyes or a velvety nose, but it can convert sugars into a milk protein called casein. Cow's milk is very high in casein, which is about 99 percent of the reason cheese made from cow's milk is what it is; not only is casein part of what gives milk its taste, but when you heat it, the bonds holding it together give out completely, helping turn solid cheese into a gooey pile of delicious pizza or nacho topping.

While a lot of people are perfectly happy to use plant-based milk substitutes on cereal or in coffee, it's virtually impossible to turn almonds, coconuts or soybeans into convincing stand-ins for dairy products like cheese, yogurt, and sour cream. In fact, the market has been so devoid of options that Perfect Day CEO Ryan Pandya dedicated his career to the cause after starting a plant-based diet and being traumatized early on by bagel with vegan cream cheese:

"That cream cheese was so bad it like literally inspired this entire company," he told Fast Company.

In order to make a product that contains casein but doesn't rely on cows and is free of additives people might not want, Perfect Day food scientists employ a yeast production process used in other sectors to manufacture vaccines, insulin and biofuel. From there, they add plant fats, nutrients and other proteins in just the right ratios to make the end product taste, act and feel like cow's milk. And because they don't have to feed the yeast hay or figure out what to do with its manure, Perfect Day estimates its animal-free dairy milk uses 98 percent less water, 91 percent less land, and expends 84 percent less carbon than is currently standard for the dairy industry.

Perfect Day is planning to make its debut in the yogurt aisle — so if you're considering going the vegan route, for more options maybe wait a year or two?

The ability to synthesize milk in a lab could diminish the need to house cows in milk farms, like this one Coxwold, England.
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