The newest alternative-milk brand doesn’t call itself plant-based, but “cow-free.” The brand, Betterland, is the first milk to come to market, which uses Perfect Day’s animal-free dairy protein—whey that’s identical to the protein in cow’s milk but made with the use of fungi in bioreactors, not animals.
Replicating the protein makes Betterland’s beverage perform differently from almond milk or soy milk. If you’re making a latte, for example, the new “milk” is designed to froth exactly like standard milk, forming bubbles in the same way. “When you pour it into your coffee, you can drink a whole cup of coffee and you still have the peak [of foam] at the bottom,” says Lizanne Falsetto, founder and CEO of Betterland Foods. In the same scenario, some plant-based milks go flat. Similarly, if someone uses the new milk to bake or cook with, it will act like traditional milk when whipped or heated.
Falsetto has a long history in food innovation. She launched the first brand of protein bars, called Think!, in the 1990s. After that brand was sold in 2015, she watched the rise of new alternative proteins that were more sustainable—including dairy alternatives that could help shrink the carbon footprint of milk—and learned about Perfect Day’s approach. The company sees protein as the key to making alternative dairy products that truly go head-to-head with traditional dairy.
“If you look at milk, there are three big things—there’s the sugar, there’s the fat, and then there’s the protein,” says Perumal Gandhi, cofounder of Perfect Day. “The realization we had was the protein is what makes up most of milk in terms of what it can do. That’s why if you look at things like oat milk or soy milk or almond milk, you can use it as a white beverage in your cereal. But if you put it in your coffee, it doesn’t taste the same. It doesn’t give you that foam . . . the protein gives it most of its functionality. It binds with water, it binds with air, and does the thing that makes milk milk.”
Like some other food companies, Perfect Day uses a process called “precision fermentation” to make dairy proteins. In tanks similar to those used to brew beer, they feed sugar to microbes that are genetically engineered with the cow DNA to make whey proteins. While it might sound futuristic, it’s a process that’s already used in food production: Most rennet, an ingredient in cheese that was traditionally made from the stomach of a calf, is now made with precision fermentation. Impossible Foods uses the process to make heme, an ingredient that helps its plant-based burgers taste more like real meat. (Insulin for diabetic patients is made the same way.)
Perfect Day develops some products itself, including Brave Robot, a line of ice cream that uses its whey. It developed its own version of animal-free milk, which Starbucks began testing in a couple of cafes last year. But it’s also partnering with other brands that want to use the ingredient to make new products. “What drives us is impact,” Gandhi says. An independent lifecycle analysis found that the company’s whey protein reduces greenhouse gas emissions by up to 97% when compared to conventional production. “Just one company doing this is not the impact that we want to have, so our goal is to get this out to the entire industry,” he says.
Betterland’s team took the protein and went through a year-long R&D process to develop a recipe for its first two products, a whole milk and a “creamy” version designed specifically for baking. “We did a complete category deep dive into what was on the shelf today, what we would want to make different, and we then took it to bench,” Falsetto says, meaning the company’s test kitchen. The new milk uses coconut oil, sunflower oil, and a supplement called MCT oil, among other ingredients. It has 8 grams of protein—far more than some plant-based milks—less fat than whole milk, and a third of the sugar. It also avoids some of the other challenges of conventional milk, from cholesterol to hormones and antibiotics. It’s lactose free, but because it contains real dairy proteins, anyone with a whey allergy shouldn’t consume it.
Using dairy protein alone doesn’t replicate the taste of cow’s milk; a pre-production sample I tried was sweeter, with a noticeably different flavor. (This wasn’t the case for an early sample of Brave Robot ice cream that I tasted, which I thought could be mistaken for the real thing.) Betterland says that it wants to make something that tastes better than milk. “Transparently, our goal for the performance of Betterland milk is to be virtually indistinguishable from cow’s milk in terms of frothing, foaming, cooking, whipping, baking, or steaming,” says Falsetto. “In terms of flavor, however, our goal is for Betterland milk to be preferred over traditional cow’s milk.” Betterland’s milk will launch later this spring at a premium price, though, eventually, the company wants to compete on price with traditional milk.
Other companies, including the dairy giant Danone, are also working on new plant-based alternatives designed to taste more like milk. Falsetto argues that plant-based milk can’t replicate dairy closely enough, and still poses some environmental challenges, such as the water needed to grow almonds for almond milk. “It’s almost like hybrid automobiles as a step toward electric,” she says. “Plant-based dairy, I think, is an interim step toward the creation of dairy products without cows.”