The plant-based ice cream from Eclipse Foods, a Bay Area startup, is made with ingredients like oats, potatoes, and corn. But because of the company’s process—a patent-pending combination of heat, pressure, and other steps—it mimics the molecular structure of dairy.
“We looked at alternative proteins in the food system at large, and what needs to be done,” says Eclipse Foods cofounder and CEO Aylon Steinhart. “What we saw is that for meat, Impossible and Beyond were actually doing a great job at creating plant-based meat products that would actually be replacements for mainstream consumers, as opposed to substitutes like a black bean burger or a quinoa burger . . . . Then we looked at dairy. Ironically, even though there were tons of substitutes like soy milk or oat ice cream or cashew cheese, there was really no one-for-one replacement for dairy that would win over mainstream consumers across the board.”
Cofounder Thomas Bowman, a former chef at Michelin-starred restaurants who previously worked on the development of other plant-based products like Just Egg, spent a year experimenting in the kitchen before finding an approach that made plant ingredients behave like milk. “He changed one processing parameter, and one ingredient,” Steinhart says. “All of a sudden, the mixer that had previously been humming along started making these weird noises. He looked in, and what he saw is that our milk had basically turned into curds on the side and whey on the bottom. And that was this moment of, Oh my gosh, this product is actually acting like dairy.” (Bowman had added an acid, the step that makes regular milk curdle.)
In milk from cows, microscopic structures called micelles hold proteins and help give dairy its taste, texture, and ability to turn from liquid to creams and cheeses. The company’s process creates micelles using plants. Though the company is starting with ice cream, its approach could be used to make any dairy product.
Other companies in the alternative protein world are taking different approaches to dairy, such as Perfect Day, which uses microbes that are engineered to make real milk protein in bioreactors. Steinhart says that he thinks some consumers will be interested in the simplicity of Eclipse’s ingredients and the fact that no genetic engineering is involved; others may have a milk allergy. (Perfect Day’s ice cream is lactose free, but consumers who have an allergy to dairy proteins will have to avoid it.) In an unofficial taste test, I thought that Eclipse’s caramel butter pecan “non-dairy frozen dessert” did, in fact, taste like ice cream. I thought that the texture of a chocolate version was a little less convincing. In larger blind-taste tests, the company found that 73% of consumers thought that the product was creamier than dairy ice cream, and the majority liked the new product equally, or preferred it.
Eclipse launched its first product in late 2019, and had originally planned to roll out in restaurants in 2020. Then the pandemic happened, and they shifted to direct sales to consumers with flavors made in partnership with chefs. Now, the ice cream is beginning to show up in grocery stores across the country.
Competitors like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat are also now working on next-generation plant-based dairy. Steinhart thinks there’s plenty of room in the market—right now, less than 3% of the ice cream market is plant-based. The goal is to help more consumers make the shift because of the environmental benefits of making these products from plants and not cows. As Eclipse scales up production, Steinhart says that it should be able to compete with dairy on cost. “We’re making stuff from plants, versus funneling a bunch of plants through cows and losing a ton in the process, because cows are very inefficient,” he says.