Summer is here, and as we all know, that means one thing: delicious, glorious ice cream. It’s the perfect treat — cool, refreshing, silky, sweet, and ... grown in a laboratory?
Yes, lab-grown ice cream is here. It’s made from whey protein produced by genetically modified yeast rather than by cows. In fact, not a single cow is needed to create this brand-new snack.
It’s the culmination of five years of work at Bay Area-based biotech startup Perfect Day. The founders, Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi, are young vegan bioengineers. They wanted to create a product that’s indistinguishable from cow-made dairy, yet reduces animal suffering by steering us away from factory farming, and helps fight global warming by reducing the number of methane-producing cattle and the land needed for grazing.
“Both of us happen to have a similar background of working in medicine, where therapeutics and medicines are made using basically fermentation already today,” Pandya said in an interview with Fast Company. “And so the two of us started scratching our heads and wondering, what if we just apply that same exact technology that’s been around for half a century to make the world’s most in-demand, highest-quality protein?”
There are already plenty of dairy-free ice creams out there — they’re made of everything from oats to almonds to chickpeas. But they don’t generally taste as creamy as traditional ice cream.
According to some lucky reporters who’ve tried it (I haven’t yet), Perfect Day’s ice cream does taste like the real thing, because it is the real thing: The scientists have made it using whey and casein, the exact same proteins that give milk its unique texture and flavor — it’s just that they’ve gotten a genetically engineered yeast to produce those proteins.
This is similar to the premise underlying lab-grown meat, which involves taking a few starter cells from a real animal, putting them in a growth medium, and allowing them to reproduce in the lab. What you get is genuine animal tissue — only you don’t have to slaughter an animal to get it.
Perfect Day goes one step further: It requires absolutely zilch from real animals, not even a single cell, a fact sure to appeal to vegans.
And the founders claim that making whey their way uses up 98 percent less water and 65 percent less energy than the traditional means of producing the protein.
They also point out that their method for making nutritious and delicious protein can be applied anywhere, including in regions where a harsh climate makes dairy farming tricky. “To that end,” their website says, “we’re building partnerships with governments and nonprofits across the planet who view Perfect Day’s approach as a means to provide environmentally sustainable and affordable protein to undernourished populations.”
Perfect Day so far has only a limited supply of the new ice cream. It sold samples to the first 1,000 customers to order via its website last week, who were offered vanilla salted fudge, vanilla blackberry toffee, and milky chocolate. The company quickly sold out, even though three pints cost a hefty $60! It may be a couple of years before you see its products on your grocery store’s shelves.
For now, the company is focused on becoming a supplier of animal-free protein to big food manufacturers, in hopes that’ll help it introduce the ingredient to a mainstream market. It’s raised some $60 million in venture funding by partnering with agribusiness giants such as ADM.
It’s smart business for large food manufacturers to get in on this: The American market for for dairy alternatives (including dairy-free ice cream) is growing fast, just like the market for meat alternatives.
By aiming to partner with big manufacturers, Perfect Day is mirroring the strategy favored by meat alternative startups like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, which have teamed up with Burger King and Tyson, respectively.
These big players don’t share vegan values, but they have the mainstream cachet that could help a startup like Perfect Day scale up and penetrate the market faster than it otherwise would.
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