This is the second article in my series on Precision Fermentation. For Part 1, click here.
Last week I introduced “precision fermentation,” a synthetic biology (“synbio”) technology that is being used to make milk proteins without animals. It’s also being used to make cooking oils, animal fats, collagen, honey, lobster, and egg whites.
There is way more information to learn about these synbio foods than I was prepared for, so this will be an ongoing series. In this article, we’ll focus just on milk proteins.
“Animal-free dairy” proteins have already been showing up as ingredients in milk, ice cream, cream cheese, cake mix, and animal-free whey protein powder. These all qualify as ultra-processed foods.
Yeast, algae, or bacteria are programmed by inserting cow DNA into them. This is done through gene editing (using technologies such as CRISPR) or gene cloning. The genetically modified organism produces the milk as a byproduct of its metabolism as a result to the genetic change.
In this case, the organisms are programmed to make milk proteins such as whey or casein. While the product may be animal-free, it is not dairy free. It may be considered vegan, and is being marketed as such, but people with sensitivities or allergies to milk or milk proteins should not eat animal-free dairy products.
The FDA does not require these foods to be labeled as genetically modified (GMO) because while they are produced by genetically modified organisms, the final product doesn’t contain those organisms. However, precision fermentation food products do not qualify for verification with the Non-GMO Project because GMOs are involved in the production of these foods. 1
One company making “really dairy, no cows required” is Remilk, an Israeli food tech startup that already has its milk protein on supermarket shelves in the USA in Bold Cultr cream cheese alternative from General Mills. Bold Cultr is now being sold at Hy-Vee Supermarkets in Minnesota, with wider distribution planned soon. 2
Remilk’s precision fermentation uses yeast cells as the vehicle for DNA from cows to produce milk protein. The DNA instructs the yeast to produce milk protein. The yeast is them placed into fermenting tanks (also known as “bioreactors”) where the yeast multiplies and produces the milk proteins.3 The milk proteins are then separated from the growth medium of simple (GMO) sugars. To create the synthetic milk product such as Bold Cultr cream cheese alternative, the synthesized milk proteins are mixed with flavorings scents, vitamins (all of which may also be produced via precision fermentation!), emulsifiers, and more. Yum. 4
Perfect Day, a larger player in the U.S. animal-free dairy market, uses a fungus called Trichoderma to host its cow DNA to produce animal-free milk protein.5 You can find Perfect Day’s animal-free whey in a few products in the United States, including Brave Robot ice cream (at Kroger, Ralph’s, Gelson’s, and other supermarkets), and Modern Kitchen cream cheese in East Coast markets. California Performance Co. whey protein powders and Bored Cow milk are available online nationwide.
Ultra-processed foods in general are not recognized by the body as containing real nutrients and they are not something I recommend to my clients. Adding the synbio aspect raises many new concerns for long-term health effects.
As I mentioned last week, there has been no long-term testing on the health effects of the primary metabolite (in this case, the “animal-free” milk proteins). Neither have the other new metabolic products produced in the process. I invite you to search for yourself online. It’s difficult to find anyone asking the questions of the safety of these new food products, let alone anyone with answers.
What do you think about animal-free dairy products so far?