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The rise of lab-grown dairy: a sustainable solution for the future

Recently, there has been a lot of talk surrounding cultivated meat, especially after Upside Foods and Good Meat received final U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) approval to sell lab-grown meat for the first time in the U.S.. And, although perhaps less talked about, cultivated – or lab-grown – dairy could also be set to take off, and can have just as much of a positive impact on the environment as cultured meat.

Dairy alternatives, such as plant-based milks like oat milk and almond milk, have been in the mainstream for several years now, as people look to limit their consumption of animal products for the good of the planet, and for the sake of animal welfare.

Recently, lab-grown dairy is also beginning to get thrown into the mix of animal-free products, which, if it takes off, could have the potential to replace traditional dairy as a sustainable solution for the future.

So, how exactly is lab-grown dairy made and how much more sustainable is it than traditional dairy?

How is lab-grown dairy made?

Lab-grown dairy is made with all the same cells as traditional dairy, only it is created in a giant bioreactor rather than a factory farm. Here, a process known as precision fermentation is used, which is similar to what has been used for decades to brew beer, make insulin, and produce rennet for cheese.

“This biotechnology involves a fermentation process that involves injecting specific genes into microorganisms like bacteria or yeast to create cultured cells under a controlled environment. The cultured cells are grown to produce proteins and fats that mimic traditional animal milk without the traditional methods,” explained Wendy Johnson, the director of safety and corporate compliance for Nelson-Jameson, one of the leading distributors in the food and beverage processing industry.

Gitte Barknowitz, global market development manager for food and environmental at SCIEX, a global leader in life science analytical technologies that develops LC mass spectrometry, also explained that, for cultured dairy production, the cell type is different to that of cultured meat production, and typically mammary cells are used for this type of cell culture.

“Either a product like milk is harvested from cell culture of these cells or genetically modified microorganisms produce a partial dairy product like casein, whey or lactoferrin which is harvested and then used for the production of dairy products,” said Barknowitz.

Can lab-grown dairy outperform traditional options?

She also added that, when restricted to only plant-derived ingredients, formulation R&D teams encounter challenges when it comes to getting the mouthfeel and melting properties correct, at high or low temperatures, for products like cheese and ice cream, as they often hit limits. But, precision fermentation of dairy proteins with the help of microorganisms fills that gap, bringing it a step above plant-based dairy products.

So, lab-grown dairy should still taste, look and feel quite similar to traditional dairy; good news for those who despise the taste of some questionable varieties of plant-based cheeses.

And, according to Barknowitz, lab-grown products could have a big advantage in terms of nutritional benefits, too, as additional nutrients can be added to the growth medium, meaning there is a possibility of creating nutritionally superior products in bioreactors.

“If a cow is deprived of nutrients, that might not always be monitored, but monitoring nutrients in cell-culture is a fairly standard process and another strong application area of mass spectrometry in the alternative protein landscape,” said Barknowitz. “These products of higher nutritional value can be beneficial for groups that require higher nutrient density like infants, athletes, ill people, or staff on military and space missions.”

Startups in the field gain traction with approvals and funding

In the U.S., several companies have already had their lab-grown products approved and made available to the public, including Perfect Day, which is a pioneer in lab-grown dairy, being the first company to bring protein fermentation-based products to the market a few years ago. It now has products for sale that include ice cream, milk, and cream cheese.

Thanks to these approvals, and the growing interest in climate-friendly companies, lab-grown dairy is now attracting the attention of investors, too. In fact, a few corporate investors, such as Continental Grain Company and SK Inc, have already proven to be pioneers in lab-grown milk investments, backing Perfect Day in particular.

And, according to Global Corporate Venturing, since 2018, there have been around 20 corporate investments in various lab-grown meat and dairy startups, with Israel in particular having become a hotspot for several lab-grown milk startups.

Additionally, a study sponsored by Perfect Day and Cargill found that consumers are seeking more natural, fresh, and less processed foods, and believe that science and technology, such as precision fermentation, might be a more suitable way to address environmental issues than traditional food manufacturing methods.

With almost 75% of respondents wanting their food to be as natural as possible, and 61% viewing science and technology as a driver to address climate change and improve the food system, precision fermentation may be closer to being adopted by consumers than originally thought.

What are the challenges of commercializing lab-grown dairy?

However, when it comes to commercializing lab-grown dairy products and bringing them into the mainstream, there are certain challenges that still need to be overcome in terms of convincing consumers that lab-grown dairy products are ‘trustworthy’.

For example, in the European Union (EU), any precision-fermented or plant-based products are not allowed to be labeled as ‘dairy’ or ‘milk’, which could be confusing or unclear for consumers.

Additionally, consumers can be hesitant about buying new products, and want to know how lab-grown dairy is made, along with its health effects, meaning it is important that precision fermentation companies are as transparent as possible about their products.

But these challenges are to be expected with any new food innovation, and, as long as consumers are well-informed and are interested in buying cultivated dairy to help save the planet, there is no reason these products cannot become a successful alternative to traditional dairy.

What are the environmental benefits of lab-grown dairy products?

Sustainability plays the biggest factor in the push to bring lab-grown dairy products to our shelves, as they are far more friendly towards the planet than traditional dairy.

“Lab-grown dairy produced through precision fermentation is thought to be more sustainable than animal dairy for a number of reasons. Lab-grown dairy may reduce the impact on the environment by the use of fewer resources such as land and water. Raising livestock generally requires a significant amount of land for grazing and the production of feed. Greenhouse gas emissions are also a concern that may be reduced through the use of lab-cultured products,” explained Johnson.

According to a report commissioned by Perfect Day, which compared the company’s process for producing milk proteins to the impact of producing the same amount of these proteins from cows, creating dairy products in a lab comes with a much smaller environmental footprint than conventional dairy products.

The report found that Perfect Day’s process produces 91% to 97% fewer greenhouse gas emissions, requires 20% to 60% less energy, and consumes up to 99% less blue water – which is the type of water found in surface and groundwater reservoirs – per kilogram of protein produced than traditional farming.

Will tomorrow’s milk come from a laboratory?

So, with no doubts around just how sustainable lab-grown dairy is, does this mean it will end up replacing traditional dairy completely?

Johnson said that, although it may be feasible for lab-grown dairy to replace traditional dairy by 2050 – when it is thought that cattle production will be reduced substantially due to plant-based alternatives, climate change, and the societal movement towards sustainable activity – she believes that the process of fully replacing traditional milk products with lab-created products will take much longer.

Additionally, Barknowitz pointed out that there are currently still far less companies developing lab-grown dairy products than there are companies that develop plant-based products that mimic dairy, such as oat milk. Therefore, as touched upon previously, it might be a while still before lab-grown dairy becomes as highly commercialized as plant-based alternatives.

But Barknowitz did add that more and more companies are beginning to focus on cell-cultured dairy, and can now be found across the globe from Singapore, to Australia, to the U.S..

So, if the precision fermentation industry continues to grow, lab-grown dairy could become commonplace in our supermarkets in the not-so-distant future, offering a sustainable solution, while also providing consumers with a more realistic dairy alternative than plant-based products.

Source : Labiotech Sep 8th 2023

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