Lab-grown dairy proteins could make vegan cheese as good as the real thing

Cheese DNA

Vegan cheese isn’t what it used to be. The products of yesteryear had a reputation for being plastic-y slices with a vaguely cheese-like flavor. But today, dairy-free cheese melts beautifully. Artisanal vegan cheese made using traditional cheese-making techniques is starting to take off. A handful of startups are looking to bring animal-free cheese that’s even closer to the real thing by growing plant-based dairy proteins in a lab.

Dairy gets its distinctive taste from two proteins: whey and casein. The process to make animal-free versions of whey and casein closely resembles the way Impossible Foods makes its signature burger. Impossible Foods grows plant-based heme—the iron-rich molecule that makes meat taste like meat—is “made via fermentation of genetically engineered yeast.”

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The startups that are working to create lab-made dairy also use fermentation to create the key components in milk, cheese, and yogurt. When combined with plant-based ingredients, companies are able to create vegan dairy products that taste and behave like the real thing.

According to Inja Radman, a molecular biologist and a founder of food-tech startup New Culture, traditional vegan cheese falls short due to the lack of “crucial dairy proteins.” Vegan cheese can melt and stretch, but it still falls short. The company is developing animal-free casein in a lab and has created vegan mozzarella that stretches like the real thing.

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