If plant-based milk has become mainstream—the category is now a $2 billion market in the U.S.—the same can’t be said for vegan cheese. While several startups are working on the problem, it’s challenging to replicate the taste and texture of cheese made from cow milk, and plant-based alternatives struggle to avoid a plastic-like texture and bland taste.
In Israel, a startup called Remilk is taking a different approach: By creating lab-made dairy protein that’s identical to the natural version, it can make a vegan, lactose-free, cholesterol-free cheese that tastes like the real thing. It’s a similar process to the one that Perfect Day, a Silicon Valley startup, uses to make ice cream and yogurt.
Remilk focuses on the casein protein, the element that it says is most critical to making cheese taste like cheese, with the same stretchiness and mouthfeel. “This huge gap between plant-based cheese and real cheese is represented almost entirely by casein micelles,” says Aviv Wolff, cofounder and CEO of Remilk. (Micelles are “supramolecules” that each contain tens of thousands of individual casein proteins; Perfect Day has focused more on the whey protein, another key element of dairy.). “This unique structure of the proteins, that has only been found in mammalian milk, is where the magic happens, and is responsible for all the different qualities that we love about dairy products.”
In cheesemaking, when enzymes are added to milk, they interact with caseins and make them collapse, creating a curd. “The curd is essentially the starting material for the production of all cheeses, so it’s only thanks to the milk proteins that we can recreate the same taste and texture,” Wolff says.
The company uses microbial fermentation to replicate casein—essentially the same type of process as making beer, but tailored to produce this particular protein. The same process is already used to produce medical products such as insulin and drugs. New Culture, a startup based in San Francisco, is developing the same process to make casein for cheese. “We insert the gene that encodes a specific protein into a microbe,” Wolff says. “What follows is amazing: the gene acts like a manual for the production of the encoded protein, instructing the microbe how to produce it in a highly efficient way. The result is fermented milk proteins, identical to those that cows are making.” Plant-based fats and sugars can be added to make the final product.
The company, which recently completed an $11.3 million funding round, is tailoring its process now and expects that it will become commercially viable by the end of 2021. Before the first cheese comes to market, it will have to get regulatory approval (in the U.S., the designation will be “generally recognized as safe”). Ultimately, Wolff says, the cheese can be cheaper to produce than cheese made from cow milk—and healthier and with less environmental impact. Cheese has a high carbon footprint: if you eat it 3 to 5 times a week, it’s roughly the same as driving a gas car more than 500 miles.