July 18, 2019

Milking Almonds, One Year Later

 |  By: Mike Opperman

July 17, 2019 marked the one year anniversary of that fateful day when Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), uttered these fateful words: “almonds don’t lactate.” 

Truer words were never spoken.

Since that proclamation was made much has happened with regard to the advancement of alternative dairy products. 

There are certainly more products available today than there were back then. Basically anything that is a nut now has a milk made from it. You can even make your own homemade hemp milk.  

But it’s more than just milk that has the alternative counterparts. The website The Chalkboard lists 13 plant-based dairy-free alternatives to everything from ice cream to coffee creamer. 

The availability of all of those products must mean that some segment of the consuming public wants to pay money for those products, which must be true because sales of dairy alternatives are booming. Dairy-free cheese sales rose 20% from January to April to $160 million in the U.S., and yogurt sales grew almost double that at 39% and $230 million, according to Spins and the Good Foods Institute. Plant-based meat, on the other hand, only grew 10% over the same time period. 

The Good Food Institute says plant-based milk is now purchased by 37% of households, and the dairy alternative market is now worth $1.2 billion. 

And now you don’t even need plants to make dairy alternatives. Perfect Day is a San Francisco-based startup that has developed a way to make whey in the lab using a cocktail of cow DNA and yeast. They have combined their synthetic whey with water and plant-based ingredients to make ice cream and want to make other dairy products in the future. 

No one would buy that, you say. Actually they sold out of their initial ice cream offering in hours, at a price of $20 per pint, according to CNBC. A limited edition run of 1,000 three-packs which included a pint each of Milky Chocolate, Vanilla Salted Fudge and Vanilla Blackberry Toffee sold for $60 ($100 if you want dry ice shipping).  

The company says it takes 98% less water and 65% less energy to make their product compared to the old fashioned way. 

The path forward for companies like Perfect Day is not all rosy, according to Bloomberg. Consumers aren’t necessarily fond of foods made from genetically modified organisms, like the ones used to make the lab-grown whey. 

But that hasn’t stopped investors from taking note. Last year Archer Daniels Midland invested in Perfect Day to help lower the cost of production, according to Bloomberg. Other companies are in the business of synthetic dairy as well. New Culture is a company that has made mozzarella from lab-grown casein. Motif Ingredients makes lab-grown dairy proteins for use as flavor and texture ingredients. 

Some might wonder where the FDA weighs in on this. Lab-grown dairy products will be viewed by regulators as any other GMO product, says Nigel Barrella, a lawyer who counsels the Good Food Institute. 

“In terms of the FDA’s attitude, it will be near the GMO product: functionally these are the same,” Barrella told Bloomberg. “There is no scientifically known difference between corn and GMO corn.”

Branding is another issue. Nobody wants to eat anything labeled “lab-grown”, and vegans don’t want something labeled “milk protein” even if it doesn’t come from a cow. As a solution, Perfect Day wants to create a category around fungi – they think that is a more consumer friendly term. 

“We are trying to explore how we can get a term for this industry that’s outside of plant-based,” says Ryan Pandya, one of the founders of Perfect Day. “Something someone with a plant-based diet can eat, but it’s not from plants. It’s an animal protein, but not from animals.”

If your brain hurts trying to get your head around this latest trend, don’t work too hard. Lab-grown proteins won’t grab too much market share soon. Perfect Day has made a metric ton of the synthetic whey so far. The U.S. uses more than 200,000 metric tons of all types of whey annually, so the company has some catching up to do.

What is more concerning is how fast this dairy-alternative trend is moving. All of this activity basically happened over the past year. That begs the question: Where will be a year from now? Five years? 20 years? 

Back in the day when rotary phones were the only thing around, people would have scoffed at the notion of today’s cell phone. Today, my teenage kids would have no idea how to even use a rotary phone. Let’s hope their kids get the chance someday to eat dairy products actually made from cows.