Cheese lovers who have tried vegan cheese often bemoan that it won’t melt, stretch, or brown, and it usually lacks that signature savory flavor that makes cheese simply delicious.
Well, listen up, because plans are afoot to make a new type of cheese. Producers say it will taste and feel just like the real deal.
But it’s made in a lab. And without cows.
In Hackney Wick, east London, Better Dairy recreates the protein in milk that makes cheese such a good cheese.
“Casein is the thing that gives cheese its meltiness, its stretch, and its gooiness,” says CEO Jeevan Nagaragah. “So with casein it’s only 90% of the way to conventional cheese.”
Just as a brewer adds yeast to crops to make beer, these scientists use yeast to ferment casein.
The process is called microfermentation, and it could hold the key to addressing the climate damage done by the dairy industry.
Better Dairy rewrites the yeast’s genetic code to tell it what to make, adds sugar and oxygen, and then ferments it in vats to produce casein.
The result is molecularly identical to real milk protein, yet vegan. And that similarity makes them completely safe to eat, they say.
Micro-fermentation is used to make things like inulin, vanilla flavoring, and the nutritional supplements in infant formula.
US-based Perfect Day already sells its farm-raised dairy products to market across the pond, having passed regulations there.
It says it can cut emissions by up to 97% and use fresh water by 99% compared to conventional dairy products. And because it can be grown in a laboratory, it does not require any pasture land.
Dairy cows and the fields that grow their fodder occupy the equivalent of 20% of the UK’s territory. Much of that space is badly needed for things like planting trees, building homes, and restoring nature — The UK has some of the worst biodiversity on Earth.
Every day, approximately 1.9 million cows in the UK release up to 500 liters of methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
Hence the government’s advisers, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), have said Britons need to cut their meat and dairy consumption by a fifth in order to meet our climate targets.
CCC’s Dr. Nikki Rust says the growing demands on land mean “difficult decisions need to be made about what we want from our land and where we want to make trade-offs”.
Without consuming less meat and dairy, which would also be healthy, “we’ll need to make sharper emissions cuts elsewhere,” she warns.
How does it taste?
But eating less dairy may seem like a sacrifice to some of us. Consumers who have tried vegan cheese often complain that it lacks the tangy taste, crumbly texture, and deep taste of real cheese.
But Mr. Nagarajah believes his product will mean that people no longer have to choose between enjoyment and morality, and instead can have “the best of both worlds.”
“We want to produce products that taste as great as conventional dairy products, without using any animals as part of the production process,” he adds.
“There is a whole group of people who are going vegetarian and vegan because of sustainability goals. I totally applaud them.”
But he says not enough people are making the shift.
“If we can offer cheese that tastes like cheese,” says Nagaraga, “more people are likely to cut back on real dairy products.”
So is it? Well, the quality has a hint of residual sweetness from the coconut that provides the fat. That will fade, Nagarajah says, and the breakdown will develop as it matures.
But two-month-old cheddar actually has a deeper flavor, and is closer to a cow’s milk version than any imitation you’ve tried previously.
Casein is added to vegetable sugars and fats, which provide the structure of imitation cheese. Get the recipe right, and theoretically they could recreate a range of cheeses, from hard to soft.
But can cows benefit nature?
The dairy industry supports 50,000 jobs, both on-site and indirectly. And some researchers suggest that cows can benefit nature, as their dung maintains healthy soil and enhances the ecosystem.
They argue that it is a matter of eating less meat and dairy products, but of a better quality, rather than cutting them out altogether.
says Rob Percival, chair of nutritional policy at the Soil Association.
But in fact, there is “a role for ruminants, for cows,” he continues. “They can contribute to soil health, if grazed appropriately. They can help manage habitats.”
“But if we farmed this way in a more nature-friendly way, we wouldn’t produce as many dairy products or cheese as we do today.”
The graffiti-covered streets of Hackney Wick that Better Dairy calls home may seem a far cry from the green pastures of dairy.
But some of these cows are permanently housed indoors, farmed intensively, and fed feed imported from abroad.
Percival argues that this kind of intensive farming is what needs to be done.
Micro-fermentation may end the climate crisis
The industry body, the National Farmers Federation, is not convinced of the alternatives. Dairy farmer Michael Ochs, chairman of the dairy board, says dairy farms can “continue their journey to produce high-quality food that is climate-friendly and nutritious for the nation, and will continue to do so for as long as the public demands it.”
He adds that British dairy products, such as milk, cheese and yoghurt, are “essential components of the diets of people across the country, providing essential nutrition at an affordable price”.
The best dairy cheese won’t come cheap, and is expected to cost about the same as real, premium cheese. It also needs to pass regulations, so it won’t hit shelves until at least 2025.
But Dustin Benton of the Green Alliance think tank warns there is an “almost complete lack of policy support” for scaling up microbrewing in the UK.
The Department of Environment, Defra, has been “sleeping at the wheel about the economic opportunity for alternative proteins,” he says.
The government has set aside £20m between 2022-2025 to help develop alternative and more sustainable protein sources.
A Defra spokesperson told Sky News: “We recognize the importance of new technologies in increasing productivity while protecting the environment, supporting our farmers and feeding a growing global population.”
The industry could be boosted next year as the administration updates guidance on the way we use our limited land, in an effort to balance food security with climate, environment and infrastructure commitments.
Joel Scott-Halkes, director of campaigns for pro-science NGO RePlanet, says the “absurdly huge amount of land” that animal husbandry has taken over globally “desperately needs to be rebuilt so that we can end the destruction of nature and adequately reduce carbon from atmosphere to stabilize our climate.”
By replacing dairy and meat with micro-fermentation, and rebuilding the land that provides them, “we can do more than just end the climate crisis—we can actually reverse it,” he adds.
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