The answer to the question is: pretty hard. With the rise of veganism over the last couple of years, individuals eating a primarily plant-based diet have been the target of multiple companies, who have taken it upon themselves to produce vegan alternatives to a variety of ‘traditional’ animal products. Unfortunately, the available alternatives are more often than not a flop – with a weird, chewy texture, lack of taste, and an expensive price tag. Seeing as plant-based diets, even if applied in a limited capacity (reducing the intake of animal products throughout the week), are and will for sure continue to gain popularity, the demand for animal-free alternatives will also rise. Companies will inevitably need to step up their game, and come up with solutions which will satisfy the taste buds of customers. Let’s take a look at one of the game-changers of the ‘vegan technology’ industry.
One of the products which (speaking from personal experience) is especially hard to replicate in a plant-based way is cheese, which has a distinctive and hard to copy taste and texture. To highlight just how big of a deal cheese is, it has been estimated that by 2030 the global vegan cheese market will triple in value to $7 billion. Rising to meet the demand and the challenge of replacing traditional cheese with a plant-based product is Ryan Pandya and his company Perfect Day. Pandya is a graduate chemical and biological engineering, so when in 2014 he was appalled at the existing alternatives to cheese, he decided to take action. He wanted to find what was the ‘magic ingredient’ in animal milk which couldn’t be found in plant-based alternatives. “Coming at it from a scientific perspective, you can’t help but realise that there’s no magic in cows or in milk,” he says. “It’s just chemistry and biology. So it stands to reason that if you had an almond milk that had whatever ingredients are in cow’s milk, and you make it act like cow’s milk, you would have a vegan version of milk.”
Pandya eventually identified the magic ingredients as casein and whey protein, which ensure that milk and milk-based products (for instance cheese, obviously) have a creamy texture and its distinctive tangy taste. Casein in particular (which has such a variable structure that there’s a lack of consensus over what it actually looks like) is the coagulating component that causes real cheese to stretch, melt and bubble so deliciously.
Taking a closer look at the technology behind Perfect Day’s plant-based products, at the heart of the process is fermentation – the company makes dairy proteins from plant sugars. Fermentation is, in a nutshell, a way microorganisms convert food into energy in an environment with no oxygen. The method of fermentation Perfect Day uses is known as precision fermentation, allowing the company to make super specific, highly pure ingredients. In the process, microflora convert sugar into whey and casein, dairy proteins that are useful to food makers for their top-notch nutrition, functionality, and versatility.
Perfect Day utilises fermentation tanks (or bioreactors) to provide microflora with the adequate conditions to make lots of protein. The fermentation tank is filled with so-called ‘growth media’, a liquid containing plant-based sugars that microflora thrive on. Then, the growth media is inoculated with microflora. The environment inside the bioreactor is controlled by adjusting the temperature, pressure, pH, and stirring action to give the flora the perfect conditions to eat, grow, and multiply. As they consume sugar and increase exponentially, they also pump out copious amounts of our desired protein. The fermentation process ends when the flora stop multiplying and the sugar is all used up. The protein is separated from the microflora and then dried, and results in an extreme pure protein powder ready for use by food makers.
The fermentation process is actually the last step in Perfect Day’s process. Before microflora (called Trichoderma) undergoes fermentation, it receives the ‘recipe’ for making the specific whey protein which can be found in cow’s milk. The scientist at Perfect Day identified before starting the whole process which specific protein carries the properties we want, and utilised a widely accessible database (UniProt) of a cow’s sequenced genome to get the recipe for this specific protein. Then they “copied” the genetic information regarding the wanted protein and “pasted” it into the genome of microflora Trichoderma. The microflora understands the instructions and incorporates the DNA into its own genome. Then a process called homologous recombination takes place, which basically means that the flora searches the broken segments in its own DNA, and when it finds a gap with ends that match the connector’s ends, the flora fills the gap with that connector. Then the new gene is permanently incorporated into Trichoderma’s genome.
As you can see, the process of Perfect Day is fascinating and quite “simple” on paper. I especially appreciate the company giving such details of their process, so that such tech nerds as us can take a closer look at it.
Perfect Day is one of many companies currently innovating in the field of so-called vegan technology. Another fascinating example of a company in this field is Revo Foods, an Austrian startup who is producing 3D-printed smoked salmon, which was developed using new technology based on 3D food printing to recreate the texture and appearance of seafood. During the process, ingredients such as pea protein, algae extracts, and dietary fibers are combined to create a base that is high in protein, omega 3, and B12. Pretty cool, huh?
I look forward to following not only what next steps companies like Perfect Day and Revo Foods take (Perfect Foods recently announced they are working on replicating cow’s milk fat), but also to actually trying out the products they offer. I wonder if the products are as good as they look (take a look below at more of Perfect Day’s cream cheeses).