It turns out we no longer need cows to produce cow milk, we can just brew it with yeast, just like beer. Well, it’s actually a bit more complicated than that, but that’s how a company called Perfect Day explains the basics of their innovative new product – a “synthetic milk” that looks and tastes a lot like cow milk.
Perfect Day was co-founded by Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandh, two young scientists with a background in biomedical engineering. Three years ago, one was working on next-generation vaccines in Boston, and the other on tissue engineering, in New York. They didn’t know each other but they had a mutual acquaintance who knew that they both had this crazy idea about making milk without cows, and he put them in touch. They hit it off and started working on a way of making their dream a reality.
Vegans and people who are lactose intolerant have a few plant-based alternatives, like soy milk and almond milk, but if you’ve ever tried either of those, you already know that they taste nothing like real milk. And that’s exactly what Ryan and Perumal were trying to create – a synthetic milk that didn’t come from cows but tasted just like it and had all its nutrients. It sounds impossible, but the two say that their innovative product relies on technology that has been around for a while.
“We wanted to see if we could apply that same type of thinking—taking medical technology and using it to make better, safer food,” Pandya told VICE Munchies. “The way we’re doing that is the same way that proteins are made for a million other things today. The way proteins are made for medicine and multivitamins and laundry detergent—even proteins to help clean up stains and stuff—it’s all made the same way.”
Making Perfect Day milk starts with yeast, but not just any yeast. “That yeast we’ve nicknamed ‘Buttercup’ because it’s sort of acting like our cow,” Pandya said. Basically, they took this “boring, very studied, very characterized little yeast” from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and turned it into a milk making cow using 3D printing technology.
What they did was get their hands on a cow’s DNA blueprint, and used the 3D printer to create it a laboratory. They then inserted this DNA sequence into a specific location of the yeast to make it act as their cow. Now, when the yeast fermented sugar as it usually does, it made real milk proteins (casein and whey), which were then combined with plant-based fats and nutrients to create lactose-free milk.
“Your body cannot tell the difference because it’s the same in every meaningful way,” Ryan Pandya said. It tastes almost exactly the same, has the same texture, but doesn’t contain any lactose and doesn’t come from real cows.
“Our products are made from real milk proteins combined with plant-based (lactose-free) sugar, healthy plant fats, vitamins, and minerals,” the Perfect Day website states. “They have the same taste and texture as cow’s milk, but pack in more nutrition with no food safety or contamination concerns.”
Perfect Day is animal friendly (as they say, cows could use a day off), environment-friendly, lactose-free, hormone, antibiotic and steroid-free, cholesterol-free and has a longer shelf life than cow milk. It sounds like milk 2.0, but some people may have a problem with the genetic engineering required to produce it. After all GMO concerns are very trendy these days. However Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandh assure us that there is nothing to worry about.
The final product is filtered and purified of all the genetically-modified yeast used in the production cycle, which effectively makes it a non-GMO food product. Communicating this to the general public is one of the main goals of Perfect Day.
“We’re using genetic engineering to make yeast, right? But the product is non-GMO, and that’s the nuance we’re really hoping to be able to communicate clearly to people, because the protein that we’re making is not an organism, it’s not a GMO, and it’s the same exact thing found in cow’s milk,” Gandhi says. “Everything else is already non-GMO plant stuff. It’s something that you should feel comfortable eating because you’ve had all of the components before in different ways. We’re just kind of making a new mixture that you haven’t seen before.”
Interestingly, Prefect Day doesn’t intend to make synthetic milk their first commercially available product. They just feel like most people that may be interested in synthetic milk already have an alternative that they’re happy with, but when it comes to products like cheese, yogurt or ice cream, the products available today are generally disappointing.
“We are just shy of being able to announce what our first product will be,” Pandya told Munchies. “We don’t think it’s going to be milk though. I think for a lot of people, they have that non-dairy milk that they’re happy with, but they go right back over to the dairy case for the cheese, yogurt, and ice cream.”
Perfect day hopes to launch their first synthetic milk product by the end of 2017.