Synthesized dairy: The race to produce lab-grown milk

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Synthesized dairy: The race to produce lab-grown milk

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Synthesized dairy: The race to produce lab-grown milk

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Startups are experimenting with reproducing proteins found in animal milk in the lab to reduce the need for farm-grown livestock.
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      Quantumrun Foresight
    • September 14, 2022

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    Commercial farming has been criticized for animal abuse and experimentation, including the treatment of animals for dairy production. Researchers are exploring lab-grown milk, protein, and cheese possibilities to reduce the need for farm animals in dairy production.

    Synthesized dairy context

    Synthesized dairy is not new; however, the rapid growth of technology has made synthesized dairy more affordable and accessible to produce and consume. Many startups are continuously experimenting with cow’s milk replacements or imitations. Organizations are trying to reproduce the main components of casein (curds) and whey, components that are in cheese and yogurt. Additionally, researchers are trying to replicate dairy’s natural texture and temperature resistance for vegan cheese. 

    Scientists characterize reproducing dairy in labs as a “biotechnological challenge.” The process is complex, expensive, and time-consuming. It’s often carried out by providing microorganisms with a genetic code that allows them to produce natural milk proteins through a precise fermentation technique, but doing so on a commercial scale is challenging.

    Despite these challenges, companies are highly motivated to grow dairy in labs. The dairy alternatives market was estimated to be worth $3.0 billion USD in Western Europe in 2021, according to research firm Euromonitor. In particular, the UK market has expanded by nearly 70 percent since 2017, with non-soya-based milk increasing by 129 percent. 

    Disruptive impact

    In 2019, a Silicon Valley-based startup, Perfect Day, successfully reproduced casein and whey in cow’s milk by developing a microflora through fermentation. The company’s product is similar to cow’s milk protein. The protein content of regular milk is approximately 3.3 percent, with 82 percent casein and 18 percent whey. Water, fat, and carbohydrates are the other vital components. Perfect Day is now selling its synthesized milk products across 5,000 stores in the US. However, the price remains too high for average consumers, with a 550ml ice cream tub costing nearly $10 dollars USD. 

    However, the success of Perfect Day has motivated other companies to follow suit. For example, another startup, New Culture, is experimenting with mozzarella cheese using fermented protein-based milk. The company said that while there have been developments, scaling up remains challenging because of the slow progress in pilot tests. Not surprisingly, major food manufacturers like Nestle and Danone are buying synthesized dairy startups to lead the research in this lucrative area. 

    Lab-grown dairy may become more widespread by 2030 once the technology allows cheaper synthesized milk and cheese. However, some scientists caution that the development of these alternative proteins should not mimic those of heavily processed junk food and that vitamins like B12 and calcium should still be present even in synthesized dairy.

    Implications of synthesized dairy

    Wider implications of synthesized dairy may include: 

    • Global regulations and standards on how synthesized dairy should be produced, including the mandatory nutrients that it should contain.
    • More ethical consumers choosing to support synthesized dairy.
    • Commercial farming switching to lab-grown dairy, reducing dependence on animals like cows and goats, and lowering their carbon emissions.
    • Synthesized dairy eventually becoming cheaper and will be used to reduce malnutrition in developing economies.
    • Increased investment in synthesized dairy research, including labs, equipment, and scientists.

    Questions to comment on

    • How might an increase in synthesized dairy impact other sectors?
    • How can synthesized dairy further change commercial farming?

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