Whey is a milk protein that, together with casein, forms the majority of milk proteins. There is a range of new companies which produce whey and/or casein proteins:
- Founded in 2014 in Emeryville, California
- precision-fermented whey protein and dairy alternatives like animal-free ice cream
Founded in 2019 in Melbourne, Australia
bioengineering microorganisms that can produce dairy proteins and fats and formulating them into real animal-free cheese and yoghurt products
Founded in 2018 in San Francisco, California
use microbial fermentation to produce casein, a protein that coagulates to give certain dairy products such as mozzarella cheese its classic stretchy texture
Founded in 2019 in Berlin, Germany as Legendairy Foods
mix microorganisms with sugar then use fermentation to produce milk proteins that can then be used as the building blocks for dairy products, focusing on European cheese
Founded in 2019 in London, United Kingdom
use yeast fermentation and synthetic biology to brew animal-free milk, cheeses, yoghurt and ice creams
Founded in 2019 in Tel Aviv, Israel
use microbes to produce the key building block ingredients of milk and other animal-free dairy products, from cheese to butter
It's not milk until the EU says it is
Many of these companies claim that their milk proteins are molecularly identical to traditional dairy from cows.
All of their products are still considered novel foods in the EU. It means that they can't be marketed in EU countries before the European Commission authorises the products. Products are authorised only after a safety assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). None of the microbial milk proteins produced by the above companies is yet to be found on the shelves of shops in the EU.
Is it genetically modified dairy?
What is common for these novel dairy foods is that they are produced with precision fermentation. It is a technology which has been used for decades but is only now being used to produce consumer food. The technology typically involves genetically modified microorganisms (GMMs). The GMM produces or secretes the desired molecule, which is then isolated and processed into a food ingredient. Examples of products include milk proteins, egg white, colourants, fats and carbohydrates. In this case, the milk protein molecule itself is usually not genetically modified but the microorganism that it is "milked" from is.
As long as there are no GMMs in the milk, it should be ok according to the EU
The fact that precision fermentation products are produced from GMMs is the most significant hurdle in getting them authorised in the EU. Although genetically modified products could theoretically enter the market, the regulations concerning the post-market monitoring of the product are laborious and general acceptance of GMO products is low. Thus, it is always recommendable to try to make non-GMO products. In fermentation products, this means that the GMM, or the production organism, must not be found in the final product, and its DNA must be absent, too.
The first requirement, removing viable cells of genetically modified organisms in the product, is fairly easy to achieve. Demonstrating it in laboratory conditions following EFSA's guidance is sometimes a challenge though.
If you have to start removing all traces of the GMM DNA from your milk, the challenge will prove much harder.
Are you interested in how the EU authorises novel foods like microbial dairy?
Please join our next webinar "Weird food from microbes" on 28 September. Dr Pauliina Halimaa of Biosafe will go over the process of getting EU authorisation for novel foods produced from microorganisms.