"Got (synthetically bioengineered plant-based) Milk?" may not have the punch of the famous California dairy industry advert, but the founders of a Silicon Valley-based biotech startup are hoping their genetically engineered yeast will produce a dairy alternative as good or better than the cow version. Joining a growing field of recent plant-based alternative meat and dairy startups, Muufri (pronounced “moo free”) was founded in May of 2014 and is taking a somewhat different approach to developing its product.
Soy, almonds and other nuts have long been a popular base for alternative meat and dairy items, but few diners have been fooled into believing their veggie burger or soy milk tastes like the animal version. The recent push by plant-based food startups seeks to produce alternatives in the lab that replicate the taste, texture, mouthfeel, look, flavor and cooking properties of the real thing, so diners will be fooled.
While meat, cheese and egg substitutes have been (or are being) developed by companies such as Hampton Creek Foods, Beyond Meet and Impossible Foods, no one has attempted to replicate one of the most basic and ubiquitous foodstuffs of all: milk.
According to co-founder and CEO Ryan Pandya, it’s one reason he and CTO Perumal Gandhi stepped into the void with Muufri. They also cite other industry memes in pursuing the venture, namely, feeding a growing world population expected to hit 9 billion by 2050, and doing it in a sustainable manner. Besides the often inhumane treatment of cattle on large factory farms, some 3 percent of greenhouse gas emissions each year can be attributed to dairy production, according to the UN.
"There are just such a so many problems with the food industry," says Pandya, who holds a BS in chemical and biological engineering from Tufts University, "and the way to address those problems with inefficiency is to remove animals from the equation as much as we can."
Pandya says milk is ideal for synthesizing, with less than 20 components, starting with around 87 percent water and including proteins, enzymes, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. The company’s bottom-up process, according to their website, will include six key proteins for structure and function, and eight key fatty acids for flavor and richness. But instead of using cashews and almonds to replicate the curdy backbone as some alternative cheese makers do, Muufri is bioengineering yeast to produce authentic milk proteins, which will give it the same taste and nutrition as regular milk.
Muufri’s GMO process starts by adding cow DNA sequences into the yeast cells. After growing the cultures in optimal conditions of temperature and concentration, the resulting milk proteins are ready for harvest. Plant-derived fats will also be put through the biotech process to replicate the flavor and make-up of milk fats, while sugars and minerals like calcium will be added separately. The recipe can also easily be tweaked for greater health benefits, using an alternate sugar to lactose for the lactose-intolerant, or leaving cholesterol out altogether. And other types of milk – goat, buffalo, whole, skim – are also a viable option.
According to Pandya, there are several advantages to using yeast. It’s a common organism in the food industry and a component in bread, beer and wine making, and thus easier for consumers to accept, while several strains have been labeled safe by the FDA. It’s also easy to grow, with a fast throughput time in a wide range of temperatures, and Pandya can more easily equate their milk-making process to brewing beer, including the use of similar looking vats. For consumers concerned about a GMO planet, Muufri has engineered the yeast to die within hours after production.
While the goal is to produce a product as good, if not better, than milk, as well as cheaper, Muufri may initially cost twice the amount of cow milk. But without the typical bacteria found in milk, and thus no need for pasteurization, Muufri should have a very long shelf life. The synthetic milk is still in development, and the company is aiming for a marketable product by summer of 2015.