By Julie Martyn, PhD - Founder of Artisa.
It seems everyone wants a slice of the plant based meat pie right now! I’m sure we’ve all heard of the phenomenal recent growth in this sector. Beyond Meat was the first plant based meat company to be publicly listed, and with interest from venture capitalists, tech giants including Bill Gates, and celebrities such as Leonardo Di Caprio, its success was such that it’s shares soared 163% in their first day of trading in May 2019. Even amidst the current Covid-19 pandemic, their financial results for the first quarter of 2020 exceeded expectations, with a net income of $1.8 million, compared to a $6.6 million loss for the same period last year. Rival company Impossible Foods is not publicly listed but they have raised over $1.3 billion over 12 rounds of funding, including $500 million in March this year.
Much of this growth in sales of plant based meats is occurring at a time when many industries are stalling due to the coronavirus pandemic. It seems consumers are taking note of the possible link between animal borne viruses and meat consumption. Recent outbreaks of the disease in meat processing facilities, notably in the US, but also in Australia, have further fuelled these concerns and people are rethinking their dietary choices.
Coronavirus aside, how is it that these companies have gained such a foodhold in the global food market? It certainly wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t found widespread consumer acceptance for their burgers and other products. In order to create products that closely resemble animal meat in taste and appearance, they have taken the basic building blocks of meat – that’s the proteins, fats, carbohydrates and minerals, and sourced them from plants. Impossible Foods goes a step further and they have introduced a genetically engineered protein called soy leghemoglobin which mimics the red coloured hemoglobin protein found in meat, and so creates the sense of a plant based burger that “bleeds”. Taking that one step took a controversial turn however in that rat studies were conducted in order to gain GRAS (generally regarded as safe) notification from the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) for the production of this signature ingredient, and this did not sit well with their vegan clientele.
So well done plant based meat guys. You’ve minced stuff up, made it in to burger shapes and it tastes great. Nailed it.
Plant based protein on a cracker
Let’s talk about something closer to my own heart. Something that can be creamy or crumbly. Mild or sharp. That melts. Or grates. Something that can be yellow, white or blue. I want to know, what’s beyond cheese?
Cheese creates such a strong emotional response in people. We’ve all heard it said. “I’ve been vegetarian for years, but I could never give up cheese”. Well no wonder. Did you know that casein, which is one of the major proteins in milk, actually gets broken down into compounds called casomorphins? These compounds bind to opioid receptors in the brain and the opioid system is what controls addictive behaviour, pain and reward. That’s powerful stuff, and possibly explains why, even though more than 65% of the world’s population has a reduced ability to process lactose after infancy, people just can’t stop eating cheese.
Not to mention, with a carbon footprint sitting just below beef and lamb, and the host of ethical issues associated with the dairy industry, a move beyond dairy cheese is urgently needed. So where are we up to with that?
If the basic building blocks of meat can be found in plants, surely the same can be said of cheese. Its just water, protein, fat, and some vitamins and minerals right? Unfortunately it’s not so simple. The casein that we spoke about above has some pretty unique properties that play a major role in creating the familiar texture of dairy cheese. To my knowledge there are no proteins in plants that act in quite the same way.
When it comes to trying to creating the cheesiest possible plant based experience, I consider there to be two different approaches.. The first approach I call the “instant” cheeses. Made of things like coconut oil, soy milk, various starches, gums, flavourings and preservatives, these cheeses are cooked and set and they are typically the plant based cheeses you would find at the supermarket. Not too expensive, they melt on pizza and in toasted sandwiches, but you probably aren’t going to invite your friends around and enjoy them on a platter with a glass of fine vegan wine.
The second group are the more artisanal style of cheeses. Usually nut based and cultured in the traditional manner using lactic acid bacteria, these cheeses are much closer to dairy style cheeses. Camembert styles, blue vein and feta are all on the menu.
Miyoko Schinner from Miyoko’s Creamery literally wrote the book that that got so many of us started on our artisanal vegan cheesemaking journey and she truly is the pioneer of this style of cheesemaking. Grounded Foods are an exciting new player on the plant based cheese scene. Founded by chef Shaun Quade and economist Veronica Fil, originally from Melbourne but now US based, their cheeses are nut free, based on cauliflower and hemp and they are also cultured using traditional methods. These artisanal style cheeses tend to be more expensive, they aren’t melty and stretchy but in the right hands (ahem, including mine), they are definitely cheeseboard worthy.
Follow the money
But where is the big money going? What are the venture capitalists zeroing in on? With the global meat market being worth $947.6 million in 2018, and cheese a mere $69.7 million in 2019, there’s always going to be a disparity in investment dollars, but with the plant based food sector overall growing at such a rate, there must be interest there. Miyoko Schinner is certainly no slouch when it comes to attracting the big bucks, having hauled in over $12 million in early stage funding to support the expansion of her empire. Grounded Foods participation in the Seeds of Change accelerator program last year allowed them attract investment funding that really fast tracked their business growth, but they had to move to the US to do it.
Looking for disruptors
Both Miyokos Creamery and Grounded Foods make traditionally cultured, artisanal style cheeses from plants. I still wanted to know who the disruptors were in the field of plant based cheese. More research was required and that eventually lead me to a really interesting place. You remember the casein that we were talking about earlier? It’s one of the most important components in making dairy cheese, and there are now companies such as New Culture, Perfect Day and Motif Ingredients that have figured out how to make dairy free casein using industrial fermentation technology. This was the type of game changing approach I was looking for.
Make no mistake, as with the soy leghemoglobin created by Impossible Foods, this is extreme genetic modification. This recombinant protein technology already has many applications. Insulin for the management of diabetes is now produced in the lab, using this technology rather than being extracted from cows and pigs. Enzymes used in food production are also made this way.
In the case of the dairy free casein production, the DNA sequence, or gene, that codes for casein is inserted into microbes and expression of that gene is modified so that the protein is produced in large amounts. The casein is then purified, and because of the complex 3D structure of the protein, as occurs in conventional cheesemaking, the casein molecules form themselves into “clusters” called micelles. According to New Culture founder, New Zealander Matt Gibson, these clusters become the basis of a delicious mozzarella style cheese. Now that’s disruptive!
But would you eat it?
As of a year ago, New Culture were hoping to raise $2.8 million for further development of this technology. I don’t know where they are up to with this, but they appear to have a very talented team so I hope they pull it off. The molecular biologist in me thinks it is all very cool and I would probably eat recombinant protein cheese. The artisan side of me isn’t quite so sure. It’s vegan, but its a long way from being the minimally processed whole foods that I usually choose.
How about you? Would you eat it? What do you think the next frontier in plant based cheesemaking should be?