Can cow-free milk nourish the planet?

November 21, 2019 by Kelly Huffman

In the quest for better worldwide nutrition and a healthier planet, cultured proteins—grown through fermentation rather than feedlots—hold real promise. PATH and partners explore the prospects for animal-free dairy and eggs.

Animal-free whey protein sits ready for blending into ice cream, milk, and other dairy products. PATH is investigating the potential of cow-free dairy to boost nutrition around the globe. Photo: Perfect Day/Kathleen Nay

Animal-free whey protein sits ready for blending into ice cream, milk, and other dairy products. PATH is investigating the potential of cow-free dairy to boost nutrition around the globe. Photo: Perfect Day/Kathleen Nay

In September, a few lucky PATH staffers were among the first people in the world to sample ice cream made with milk protein that didn’t come from a cow.

Served up in a Seattle conference room, this dessert was the real deal. Not a soy or nut substitute, but honest-to-goodness ice cream. The twist: It was made with an animal-free milk protein identical to one that cows produce. Same nutritional profile, but made through a fermentation process similar to brewing beer.

The ice cream purveyor, Perfect Day, created the protein using engineered yeast to catalyze sugar into pure protein. In its final production step, Perfect Day filtered out the yeast, leaving only the protein in powdered form. The result—called a cultured protein—was a key ingredient in the creamy vanilla and chocolate blends that landed at PATH headquarters.

At the intersection of people and planet

Why was PATH taste-testing livestock-free ice cream in the first place?

“We can’t have 7 billion people on this planet and continue to rely solely on current farming practices to feed them,” says Bindiya Patel, PATH’s senior director of planning and design for global health programs. She’s referring, of course, to the environmental degradations of large-scale agriculture.

As global populations—along with income levels—grow, so does the world’s demand for animal-source foods. But livestock production exacts a huge toll on both planetary and animal health, accounting for about 80 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with agriculture. Dairy and other livestock operations trigger a host of environmental ills, from water pollution to deforestation. These, in turn, impact where people and critters can survive and thrive.

To sustainably meet the world’s nutritional needs will require innovative food production techniques: ones that both boost efficiency and require less land, water, and energy. Ideally, the new approaches will also cut the greenhouse gas emissions associated with livestock operations.

Holstein_dairy_cows cropped.jpg

The demand for animal-source foods is at an all-time high. Photo: USDA/Wikimedia Commons

A proving ground for cultured proteins

At PATH, we’re investigating the promise of cultured proteins to propel both better nutrition and a healthier planet.

Last year, our nutrition innovation team won a prestigious grant to partner with The Nature Conservancy, Duke University, and the International Food Policy Research Institute to investigate the potential of cultured proteins. The team’s work includes research into regulatory pathways in India, Ethiopia, and the United States: three countries where people will produce, procure, and/or consume these products. The investigators are also conducting an in-depth market analysis for cultured milk and egg proteins.

Informed by the findings, the team will then model the potential impacts of the new techniques and products. How will these affect other agricultural producers? What about land, water, and energy use? Will they curb greenhouse gas emissions? PATH and partners will also develop the first-ever carbon credit calculation for cultured proteins.

An essential part of our role: with our partners, we’ll track the short- and long-term health outcomes of consuming cultured proteins. Because it’s such a novel approach to food production, there’s scant existing data.

Healthier fare for those who need it most

An expert in nutrition, PATH’s lead for nutrition innovation, Katharine Kreis, is excited by the possibility of cultured proteins to improve the health of people in low- and middle-income countries.

In sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, for instance, residents often eat a monotonous, low-nutrient diet that relies heavily on rice, wheat, or corn. What if cultured dairy and egg proteins—produced with less land, water, energy, hormones, and antibiotics than traditional dairy and chicken operations use—could provide more nutritious fare?

More diverse diets that include milk and egg proteins would likely improve the growth and cognitive development of individuals and, ultimately, the economic development of entire nations, Katharine explains.

“We already have evidence that people want animal-source foods,” she says. “Cultured proteins show great potential to fill the gap by boosting the nutritional profile of existing foods.” For example, cultured proteins might fortify the relief foods distributed after natural disasters and during famines.

Perfect Day ice cream and other cultured protein products (milk, cheese, yogurt) aren’t yet available on the commercial market. But PATH predicts they’ll hit the shelves of US grocery stores in 2020. Animal-free cheese and yogurt promise special appeal for vegans, and these products can also be certified as halal or kosher. Lactose- and hormone-free, made without antibiotics—they offer built-in benefits to both dairy fans and the public health community.

Once established in higher-income settings, we’ll likely see cultured protein products expand into middle- and low-income countries. This is already happening with plant-based milk substitutes such as soy and oat milk. 

cooking fortified rice

In South Asia, many people eat a low-nutrient diet that relies extensively on rice. Could cultured dairy and egg proteins someday provide more nutritious options? Photo: PATH/Minzayar

Toward a more nutritious future

Can cultured protein meet some of the world’s demand for animal-source food? Can it help improve the diets of people who will benefit the most? There are plenty of hurdles to overcome—including commercialization challenges and regulatory concerns—but these new protein production technologies show exciting potential for the companies behind them, the innovators at PATH, and the global health community.

The ice cream social was a good place to start. “Ice cream brings people together,” says Bindiya of the classic treat. “And it was a lot tastier than some of the other alternative proteins I’ve tried at PATH.” She’s referring, of course, to the crickets.