What is lab milk?

Lab milk is trending but what is it and is it safe and sustainable?  Lab milk, quite obviously, is produced in a lab. It is fermented in a similar way to yogurt or kimchi with a microorganism trained to produce whey protein or casein protein, from which animal free ‘milk’ can be made. 

Not to be confused with Milk Lab, an Australian company who make plant based and dairy milk products or Milk Lab in the UK that provide dairy composition analysers. 

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Why use lab milk?

If you have ever tried plant based milk, like me, you will know that they are not the same as dairy milk. They don’t behave like dairy milk in coffee for example, as some of them curdle. They don’t work the same way when used in baked goods either and they are not quite as creamy as dairy milk. The closest I have found is cashew milk and I am still tempted to add fat, sugar and vanilla to bring it closer to the texture of dairy milk & cream and try to hide the nutty flavor! Many plant based milks leave a distinctly earthy taste in your mouth. Soy milk, in particular. So, plant based milks have room for improvement (in my humble opinion). Lab milk could fill that gap and still be suitable for vegans and strict vegetarians

How is lab milk made?

Let’s dig a little deeper into how lab milk is made. Dairy milk contains proteins (casein is a type of protein) and fats. Whey is the liquid that remains after milk is strained to make cheese, for example. Lab milk explores alternative ways to reproduce the mouthfeel and texture of dairy milk with plant based proteins, so far the same as plant based milks. The difference is that lab milk changes the microorganisms, using the DNA structure of dairy milk in order to train it to produce whey or casein. Casein protein (and casein micelles) will make milk that more closely resembles dairy milk.

Precision fermentation is already widely used commercially to produce foods like beer and kombucha. Lab milk brands are using the same process to make lab milk. 

Perfect Day uses biotechnology (or genetic sequencing) during the fermentation process to train the microflora to make whey protein isolate. The strain engineers have chosen a fungus (Trichoderma reesei) that is good at accepting and carrying out genetic instructions to make beta-lactoglobulin (whey protein). The protein powder is then extracted from the microflora and is ready to use to make milk, cheese or yogurt. 

Silicon Valley food startup New Culture is working on an animal-free casein using precision fermentation. As the process is under patent application, they won’t disclose what microorganisms they are planning to use to reproduce casein for cheese production. Caseins have a specific structure and that gives dairy cheese that stretchy quality when melted.

Imagindairy has successfully raised funding so that it can further technology to use precision fermentation to produce whey and casein proteins that can be used to develop dairy analogs. Their aim is to unblock the bottleneck in the development of casein protein. 

So some lab milks are still under development. The next question is is lab milk safe & what about sustainability?

Is lab milk safe?

Perfect Day says that “our animal-free protein has been confirmed as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), and has received a “no-objections” letter from the United States Food & Drug Administration (FDA).” 

However in the letter, which is public, the FDA has not affirmed that Perfect Day’s beta-lactoglobulin as ‘generally recommended as safe’ (GRAS) under 21 CFR 170.35. They do say that “based on the information that Perfect Day provided, as well as other information available to FDA, we have no questions at this time regarding Perfect Day’s conclusion that beta-lactoglobulin is GRAS under its intended conditions of use.”

They go on to say that “food ingredient manufacturers and food producers are responsible for ensuring that marketed products are safe and compliant with all applicable legal and regulatory requirements”. 

Is lab milk more sustainable than dairy milk? 

We know that cattle produce a high amount of emissions. Only a proportion of those emissions are caused by dairy cows. It is estimated that dairy cows in the U.S. contribute 1.3% of greenhouse gases (US Dairy). 

When compared to transport at 27%, electricity at 25%, industry at 24%, commercial and residential at 13% and agriculture as a whole at 11%, dairy production is not the highest concern. This data is from 2020 (United States Environmental Protection Agency).

Trichoderma reesei is being held up as a sustainable alternative to more than milk proteins, it is also being developed as an alternative to egg whites and an alternative biocontrol against plant diseases for agriculture. It occurs naturally in soil and decaying wood, so in theory is abundant.

John Lucy, Ph.D, Director at the Center for Dairy Research raises concerns about the limitations of artificially produced casein proteins to reproduce the complex processes of mammary glands and develop the ‘beautiful, naturally produced biostructures’ called casein micelles. He raises the question of cost in comparison to a cow eating grass that can produce 8 gallons of milk a day.

In a Dairy Foods article he says, “Industrial fermentation requires feedstocks and other inputs that could also be used as human food. It needs significant genetic engineering and processing to produce a couple of components, which lack the diversity and complexity found in a natural biological material such as milk.”

Industrial fermentation, depending on what feedstocks are used (sugar, etc) and the energy required to run the fermentation vats, might actually be less sustainable than dairy production. Let’s assume that a fermentation process will be similar to beer production. Breweries in the United States use $200,000,000 of energy a year. The Brewers Association estimates that a craft brewery will use between 50 kWh and 66 kWh to produce a single barrel of beer. 

The World Wildlife Fund reports that sugar mills are harmful to their local environments, producing waste and slurry that kills aquatic life. They can also emit flue gases, soot, ash, and ammonia. A research report estimated that in southern Brazil approximately 241 kg of Co2 is emitted for every ton of sugar. 

Potentially lab milk is not so sustainable as it first appears.

Would you use lab milk?

Given the facts, would you use lab milk or will you use it when it becomes more widely available? 

Manufacturers use Perfect Day whey protein in products that are available in over 5000 locations in the United States. They include N!cks, Brave Robot and Graeter ice creams. So you might use lab milk without even thinking about it. 

Betterland Milk makes cow free milk using the Perfect Day whey protein. We could not find US or UK stockists.

Milk Lab makes creamy plant based milk that provides the same mouthfeel as dairy milk. It is available in Australia and ‘across the world’ but we could not find US or UK stockists and deliveries from Australia are expensive, amounting to US$35 for a liter of milk. 

Alternatively, you might choose to stick with your favorite plant based milk whether that is oat, rice, soy, or nut.