Precision fermentation can produce the second generation of alternative dairy now while cell-based milk technology improves and scales. And those big factors like nutritional content and texture where plant-based dairy falls short? Precision fermentation can deliver on all those fronts and more. Where precision fermentation adds value in the dairy industry lies in its ability to create animal-free ingredients that make dairy healthier and tastier without compromising the planet’s wellbeing. As for Turtletree, we’re focused on delivering bioactive dairy proteins that have health benefits even beyond nutrition, enabling the second generation of alternative dairy to be even better for you than traditional dairy.
Precision fermentation provides sustainable, animal-free dairy ingredients
The biggest advantage of precision fermentation is that it can deliver animal proteins in an animal-free way. Because dairy cows have such a large impact on the environment, creating dairy ingredients without cows will significantly aid in climate solutions. Perfect Day performed a life cycle assessment of their precision fermentation-derived whey protein and found that if consumers were to switch entirely from milk protein to animal-free whey protein, this would save 246 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, 18,600 billion gallons of water, and 75 billion MJ of energy. Of course, even switching out milk protein for animal-free proteins just some of the time would have a huge impact.
From a resource and land use perspective, precision fermentation requires significantly less land to grow food compared to crops traditionally used for plant-based dairy like soy, almonds, or oats. Just think, instead of using thousands of acres of land to produce cow feed and even more room to house those dairy cows, milk could instead be made in a food production facility with tiny microbes doing the heavy lifting. Precision fermentation, then, can free up resources two fold: by reducing the number of dairy cows on the planet and the crops needed to feed them. At the same time, fermentation facilities can be designed to minimize water usage and run on clean electricity. That’s just one way that precision fermentation can make the food system more efficient.
Speaking of efficiency, here at TurtleTree, we like to pack a big punch into small things. That’s one of the many reasons why we chose to make lactoferrin as our first bioactive dairy ingredient. Lactoferrin can produce numerous health benefits even though it’s naturally present in milk in lower concentrations (0.5mg/L) compared to other dairy proteins like whey which has a concentration of 6.3g/L or casein with a concentration of 29.5 g/L in cow’s milk.
Moreover, lactoferrin supplements already on the market have a serving size of 250 mg, whereas serving sizes for whey and casein are closer to 25 grams and 34 grams, respectively. So, 50 grams of lactoferrin goes a lot farther than 50 grams of whey or casein would, with the 50g of lactoferrin producing nearly 100x more servings than 50g of casein or whey. This comes in handy in the production process because it means we can serve more folks lactoferrin with much less manufacturing capacity and raw materials. Not only is lactoferrin perfect for maximizing space and earth’s precious resources, it’s also great for your health too.
Precision fermentation can improve the nutritional content and health benefits of dairy
As we mentioned in our last article, one of the major concerns of plant-based milks is that they struggle to compete nutritionally with dairy milk, especially in protein content. Currently, only soy milk fortified with Vitamin A, Vitamin D, and calcium is considered nutritionally equivalent to dairy milk by the USDA Dietary Guidelines. However, those numbers aren’t as black and white as some would have you think. In actuality, even dairy milk struggles to meet those USDA nutritional requirements. The irony is that most dairy milks in the US are fortified with Vitamin A and D to become the nutritious staple you know and love. Without Vitamin A and Vitamin D fortification, a cup of 2% milk fails to meet the Dietary Guidelines for dairy milk substitutes. An unfortified cup of 2% milk contains just 251 IU of Vitamin A and 2.46 IU of Vitamin D (50% and 2%, respectively, of what’s required by the USDA Dietary Guidelines for milk substitutes). This begs the question, how were these USDA Dietary Guidelines established and what do they mean for the future of the dairy industry?
What’s more, current methods to produce Vitamin A, like what would be added to dairy milk, rely on synthesis from petroleum-derived substrates, further increasing dairy milk’s environmental impact. Precision fermentation can change this. In fact, it can aid both dairy and plant-based milks in becoming more nutritious and sustainable. Recently, DSM has announced the launch of Vitamin A produced from yeast. Others too have demonstrated the role that precision fermentation can play in vitamin production. One doctoral dissertation conducted at the University of Helsinki reported the ability to produce significant levels of vitamin B12 via fermentation of wheat flour, whole-wheat flour, and wheat bran. This discovery is particularly exciting because Vitamin B12 is often a vitamin lacking in plant-based diets. These breakthroughs demonstrate precision fermentation’s ability to fortify dairy milk, plant-based milk, and any food imaginable, with sustainably produced nutrients. Precision fermentation can be used to produce both vitamins and animal proteins to increase the nutritional value of foods without further straining the environment.
Rather than from vitamin and mineral counts, the benefits of dairy milk largely come from milk proteins. Milk proteins are classified into three types: wheys, caseins, and mucins. Whey proteins in particular are an excellent source of protein and are often added to other foods like protein bars. Traditionally, whey proteins are separated from the cheese curds during the cheese making process and can then be dried for inclusion in other foods as a powder. With precision fermentation, though, whey can be made without the cow and without making the rest of the milk. Subtypes of whey protein include beta-lactoglobulin and alpha-lactalbumin. Sounds familiar? These are the types of whey proteins that companies like Perfect Day, Remilk, and All G Foods are producing via precision fermentation!
Adding animal-free whey proteins to plant-based milks is one way to increase their protein content, helping them to meet the protein levels seen in dairy milk.
Take a look at the graphic below to see how a plant-based milk fortified with precision fermentation-derived whey protein stacks up to dairy milk and a non-fortified plant-based milk. Supplementation with precision fermentation-derived whey more than doubles the protein content of the plant-based milk so that it’s nutritionally equivalent to dairy milk.
Moreover, remember the Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIAAS) we mentioned in our previous State of the Industry and how in general animal proteins have higher digestibility scores compared to plant proteins? Incorporating animal proteins made via precision fermentation not only increases the total protein content of plant-based dairy, but also makes this protein more usable to the body. One study compared the DIAAS scores of different proteins and found that whey protein concentrate had a DIAAS of 107 while pea protein concentrate had a DIAAS of just 62 – almost half that of whey protein. This means that a plant-based milk with whey protein renders a much larger amount of utilizable protein to the body than a plant-based milk with pea protein would, even if both milks contain the same amount of protein in grams. This has huge implications in helping people meet their protein requirements, all while on an animal-free diet.
There’s more to healthy foods than just nutritional content though. Your body needs a wide array of diverse compounds to function optimally. Given that milk was evolutionarily designed to sustain every mammal throughout its infancy at a time of extreme vulnerability and growth, it’s no wonder that milk has some extraordinary health benefits. Precision fermentation allows us to harness the power of milk by bringing dairy proteins to market that have extensive health benefits, all without dairy cows.
Proteins with such benefits are called “bioactive proteins”. Bioactive proteins are those that have roles throughout the body beyond nutrition including “enzyme activity, enhancement of nutrient absorption, growth stimulation, modulation of the immune system, and defense against pathogens”. Specifically, bioactive milk proteins found in milk include lactoferrin, lysozyme, secretory IgA, and haptocorrin, to name a few.
Lactoferrin, the milk bioactive protein that TurtleTree will bring to market later this year as LF+, plays a role in the body’s iron regulation, gut health, and immune function. TurtleTree is uniquely using precision fermentation to bring bioactive milk proteins to market as better-for-you ingredients.
With precision fermentation, we can add bioactive dairy proteins to alternative dairy products at levels equivalent to or even above those found in the dairy aisle of the grocery store. For dairy milk, precision fermentation can be used to add back bioactives that are stripped from milk in the pasteurization process.
Most milk sold in the U.S. is pasteurized to rid the milk of harmful bacteria. However, through this process, pasteurization also kills off many of the beneficial components of milk, including these bioactive dairy proteins. One paper that studied the effects of pasteurization on human milk found that concentrations of lactoferrin, lysozyme, lactoperoxidase, and secretory IgA were reduced 50 to 82% following pasteurization. So, the milk you get from the grocery store doesn’t contain nearly as many of those better-for-you bioactives as it did when it left the cow’s udder.
Precision fermentation can change this. Bioactive dairy proteins like TurtleTree’s LF+ can be made in bulk and added at their effective dosage levels to alternative dairy products at the same levels seen in dairy, ensuring that you receive all those benefits of bioactives even if you’re not consuming animal products. You could even add these precision fermentation-derived bioactive dairy proteins to dairy milk to achieve pre-pasteurization levels.
Precision fermentation can even improve infant formula. The CDC reports that by the age of 6 months, 75% of infants are consuming infant formula in place of or supplementary to breast milk. However, most infant formulas are cow’s milk based and lack some bioactives unique to human milk, like human milk oligosaccharides, or have them present at lower levels. Lactoferrin, for example, is present in human milk at 1g/L but only at 0.5mg/L in cow’s milk. Studies like this one have shown that these milk bioactive proteins affect GI tract, immune system, and brain development. Already, lactoferrin derived from cow’s milk is added to a select few, premium infant formulas, especially in Asian countries. However, cow’s milk-derived lactoferrin is a scarcity that requires excessive amounts of milk to produce. Thus, lactoferrin is currently priced at a premium and is only added to more expensive infant formulas.
While TurtleTree’s LF+ will first be marketed for adult consumption, in the future, LF+ could help ensure that all infants, whether breast or bottle fed, are receiving the bioactive nutrients they need to grow.
Whether for plant-based milks, dairy milks, or infant formulas, precision fermentation is our best option to fortify products so that they are not only better for the planet, but also better for you, because there’s no sense in compromising on either.
Precision fermentation can improve the sensory profile of plant-based milk to better mimic traditional dairy
Aside from nutritional content, plant-based milks also suffer from sub-par sensory properties. One chief complaint: they often lack the creaminess of dairy milk. Factors related to the sensation (e.g., taste and texture) are called “organoleptic” properties.
Many companies in the alternative dairy space pursue precision fermentation-derived casein because of its organoleptic benefits. Casein is a very abundant milk protein comprising 70-80% of milk’s total protein content. Casein is the protein that allows cheese to stretch and pull. It’s also why, until now, this texture has been so difficult to recreate in plant-based products. Casein forms large porous structures that contain calcium phosphate called “casein micelles”. While these micelles are not entirely understood, it’s believed that the pockets of calcium allow cheese to stretch and still hold together. Casein is also the component of milk that allows it to froth! When steamed, air bubbles are injected into these micelles so that the protein encases the air bubble. Precision fermentation offers the ability to produce casein animal-free using microbes, and then add this casein to deliver stretchy plant-based cheeses. That’s just what companies like New Culture, Nobell Foods, Those Vegan Cowboys, and Formo are doing: making precision fermentation-derived casein! Of course improving texture is not only about improving mouthfeel, but also about optimizing alternative dairy products for different applications. Adding precision fermentation-derived casein to alternative dairy products will expedite their adoption into foods with particular textures, like ice cream, lattes, and nachos – and who doesn’t like that?
Rather than focusing on taste and texture, TurtleTree is squarely focused on another critical pillar of consumer adoption: nutrition. We’re working to bring better-for-you ingredients that deliver a powerful nutritional boost. TurtleTree’s LF+ doesn’t alter the taste or texture of the products it’s added to, meaning that it could be included in all kinds of foods – from sports drinks, to ice creams and yogurts, and protein powder.
By now, you’ve heard all the ways that precision fermentation can achieve the 2nd generation of alternative dairy and hopefully you’ll walk away with a better understanding of exactly where the industry is headed and the hurdles to overcome. And, if you’re just now tuning into our State of the Industry, check out Part 1 and Part 2 where we cover the technology that enables alternative dairy and discuss the current shortcomings of plant-based dairy. Still wanting to learn more about precision fermentation? Check out our article, “Precision Fermentation 101”, which highlights the basics of this innovative technology set to disrupt the dairy industry.
Sustainable nutrition for all is just around the corner. Reach out to us to find out how you can be a part of this.