The milk aisle at the supermarket is a dizzying array of choices, with soy, almond, hemp, and other plant alternatives more popular than ever. But many customers buy these substitute products—whether for health, allergy, or environmental reasons—only to turn around and head straight back for the traditional cheese and yogurt shelves.
With the exception of die-hard vegans who manage to tolerate the offensive textures and tastes of fake cheese, the joys of pizza, nachos, and lasagna are hard to resist, even for people who are lactose intolerant (hence Lactaid). The alternatives are just nowhere near the same.
One startup, first called Muufri and now called Perfect Day, is developing an "animal-free dairy milk"—real milk, just not from a cow—in hopes of stepping into this gap.
"We're trying to make a Goldilocks product that is better than anything out there: something that has the best of dairy products but also the best of the alternatives," says cofounder and CTO Perumal Gandhi.
Its milk is brewed from a yeast they call Buttercup, not taken from an animal of that name. Importantly, the founders say, it can be turned into cheese and yogurt in exactly the same way as regular milk and tastes the same.
The other cofounder, CEO Ryan Pandya, was a biomedical researcher who was new to a plant-based diet when he had the idea to work on this project. He drove 20 minutes out of his way to pick up a vegan bagel on his lunch break: "That cream cheese was so bad it like literally inspired this entire company," he says.
To make animal-free milk, the company feeds sugars to a common dairy yeast that is optimized to produce real milk proteins, including casein, the main protein in cheese. It’s very similar to processes already used commercially in the manufacture of medicines, vaccines, and some food products like rennet. Next, they add in other plant-based fats, vitamins, minerals, and sugars. The final product is supposed to be functionally and nutritionally similar to milk, but it is lactose-, antibiotic-, and growth hormone-free.
Since launching in 2014, Muufri has raised $4 million, primarily from Hong Kong-based Horizon Ventures, and has quietly gone about its work. It has made many prototypes and samples and is now focused on scaling up and releasing a product by the end of next year. This week, it changed its name to Perfect Day and launched a new website. The new name relates to a scientific discovery that dairy cows produce more milk when they hear calming music, particularly Lou Reed’s "Perfect Day." The cofounders related to the sentiment.
The company doesn’t know what its first product will be, but it is leaning toward a cheese or yogurt product rather than just a carton of milk—since that’s where the real lack of alternatives is. It has hired Ravi Jhala, a food scientist who has worked at Chobani and Sargento, to work on culinary development. Because they are making milk from scratch they can play around with the proportions of ingredients, like the balance of sugar and protein.
Perfect Day has also gotten results from a preliminary life-cycle assessment they commissioned from researchers Mark Steer, of the University of the West of England, and Hanna Tuomisto, from the European Commission Joint Research Centre. Early data suggests their animal-free milk process could use 98% less water and 91% less land, and could emit 84% less carbon compared to traditional milk production. It also has a longer shelf life.
On launch, they aim for their dairy product to be affordable, and ultimately they hope it will cost less than regular dairy products. They are also testing out what to call it and are in discussions with the FDA about testing and labeling choices.
"We’re not going to call it milk. Because it’s way more than that. We would be selling ourselves short if we just called it milk and we dropped the mic and walked away," says Pandya.
The company imagines its products ultimately as a complement to cow-based milk that takes some of the stress away from the factory farming system, rather than trying to replace dairy cows entirely. "We’re another option that we think people are hungry for that just isn’t there today," he says.
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