Leading the whey: the synthetic milk startups shaking up the dairy industry | Milk

men 1931, Winston Churchill predicted the rise of animal-free foods. Then, an opposition MP in his desert years, Churchill wrote an essay that imagined life 50 years from now. “Synthetic food will of course be used in the future,” he wrote.

The man-made material would be “practically indistinguishable from natural products, and any change will be so gradual as to escape observation,” Churchill wrote. “Microbes, which currently convert nitrogen from the air into proteins that animals live by, will be nurtured and put to work under controlled conditions just as yeast now do.”

Although several decades later than anticipated, Churchill’s prediction has been confirmed by the development of lab-grown meat and, more recently, animal-free dairy products.

Synthetic milk has emerged as a potential new alternative to cow’s milk, one thatunlike plant-based oat, nut, and soy milks intended to replicate its taste, appearance, and mouthfeel. Described by experts as the future of milk, it has been touted as an eco-friendly option that could shake up the dairy industry and leave small farmers in the lurch.

“Lab-grown milk is seen as the next food frontier,” says Dr. Diana Bogueva of Curtin University’s Sustainability Policy Institute, citing the growing popularity of dairy alternatives. Compared to dairy production, synthetic milk is likely to have a smaller carbon footprint and cause less pollution, and it obviously removes animal welfare concerns, she says.

The industry is expanding rapidly. In the US, cow-free dairy proteins produced by the firm Perfect Day are now widely used in products including ice cream, cream cheese, chocolate and protein powders. Another American startup, New Culture, is commercializing a synthetic milk-based mozzarella, while Israeli firm Remilk has set up a giant facility in Denmark to produce cheese, yoghurt and ice cream.

It will be some time before cow-free milk hits Australian supermarkets, but startups like All G Foods and CSIRO spin-off Eden Brew are racing to bring products to market in the next two years.

Yeast of Eden

Chemically, milk is mostly water, about 87% to be precise. Milk solids comprise the rest: fats, proteins, sugars, mainly lactose, and minerals. Under Australian law, at least 3.2% of the fluid in whole milk must be fat and another 3% protein.

Most synthetic dairy companies focus on producing milk proteins through a process known as precision fermentation. It involves the genetic programming of yeast or other microorganisms using synthetic DNA to produce a specific protein. Jim Fader, co-founder of Eden Brew, compares the process to brewing beer.

“We use yeast to make a protein to make a drink. They use yeast to make alcohol to make a drink,” she says.

There are at least 20 proteins in cow’s milk, about 80% of which are casein proteins, found in curds; the rest is whey protein, perhaps more familiar as a component of protein shake powders.

Casein aggregates, known as micelles, give milk its characteristic appearance and thermal stability.

“The micelle plays a critical role in many parts of the milk,” says Fader. “For example, when it binds to calcium, it makes milk look white. If you want to froth the milk and put it in your cappuccino, the ability of the milk to withstand that heat and the bubbles to be able to form…is also due to the micelle.”

Synthetic milk technology “isn’t so much about trying to displace cows everywhere from dairy,” but about “increasing supply,” says Jim Fader. Photograph: Reuters

Eden Brew produces six proteins that are most abundant in milk. Once elaborated, these will be purified and dried.

A key investor in the firm is New South Wales dairy cooperative Norco, which will be responsible for rehydrating and blending the proteins. At this stage, other components such as minerals and coconut-based fat will be added. The final product will be lactose free and a small amount of table sugar will be used to approximate the sweetness of cow’s milk.

Fader says the firm will launch an ice cream — simpler than milk because it can be made with just two proteins — around December next year. He will follow the milk, probably in August 2024.

All G Foods is focusing its efforts on whey proteins. The company’s plant-based meat products are already served in commercial hamburger chains and are sold in some supermarkets.

The company’s chief scientific officer, Jared Raynes, says the ultimate goal is to produce yogurts, cheese and fresh milk. But the company’s focus for now is on beta-lactoglobulin, the main protein in whey.

“We are going to apply for regulatory approval with our protein powder,” he says.

Parallels with synthetic fabrics.

Milena Bojovic, who is completing a PhD at Macquarie University, says that while the promise of fresh, cow-free milk has been widely heralded, the impact of synthetic dairy is likely to be greater in products such as milk powder.

“Consumption of fresh milk is declining,” he says, and consumers may be wary of drinking a synthetic version of a natural product. He points out that traditional dairy farming is also “very technologically mitigated, from conception to calf birth and the milking process.”

“If synthetic milk really takes off, I think the biggest disruption will be if it can be pulverized and used in the ingredient space… as an additive like milk solids, which are found in many processed foods,” says Bojovic. “I don’t think most consumers wonder where the milk solids in their KitKat come from.”

“If and possibly when that happens, it will be one of the major disruptions to dairies that produce exclusively for export in the form of milk powder.”

Bojovic, who has analyzed global dairy trends As part of his research, he is concerned that technological advances may leave farmers behind. Big dairy companies like Norco and Fonterraa New Zealand multinational cooperative, have begun to invest in the production of synthetic proteins.

“Small-scale operations are really going to struggle in the context of global dairy consolidation,” she says. “There is more pressure on farmers to innovate and also to invest in technology to make sure they keep up with the bigger companies.”

Bojovic sees parallels with the rise of synthetic fabrics. “When synthetic fibers hit the market, it decimated the wool industry in many regions,” he says. “It is not the first time that farmers have faced the threat of synthetics, but they have adapted, they have innovated.”


Melissa Cameron, human health and nutrition policy manager for Dairy Australia, says it remains to be seen how consumers will respond to a synthetic product. She points to statistics that suggest 58% of Australian households buy exclusively fresh, long-life cow’s milk.

“People aren’t ditching dairy,” she says. “Commercialization of proteins and synthetic products on a scale that makes these products widely available to consumers is still some way off. As our populations grow around the world, synthetic products will provide protein and complementary products. There will be room for everyone.”

Dairy demand worldwide grew 36% between 2007 and 2017 and is expected to continue to rise as the world population and per capita consumption increase.

Fader says the technology being developed by companies like Eden Brew “has less to do with trying to displace cows from all over dairy.” Rather, “it’s about increasing current supply because demand is forecast to increase a lot.”

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