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Cows are a big source of methane emissions
A potent greenhouse gas, methane is generated by manure as it decomposes, but is also burped out by ruminants, who produce it in a stomach compartment called the rumen. Here, microbes break down complex carbs and produce gases that are converted into methane by another set of microbes (methanogens). Image credit: istock/Clara Bastian

Animal-free’ dairy may not be the best way to describe whey made by microbes, not cows, says Perfect Day

March 7, 2023

The term ‘animal-free’ has steadily gained traction to describe animal proteins from egg albumin to whey protein made by microbes in fermentation tanks instead of animals. But recent research suggests it may not be the optimal term as some consumers assume such products are plant-based, says startup Perfect Day.

The term ‘animal-free’ “kind of took off,” said Allison Fowler, chief marketing officer at Perfect Day, which makes dairy proteins in bioreactors using a genetically engineered strain of the filamentous fungi Trichoderma Reesei via precision fermentation.

But consumer research conducted by Perfect Day over the past 18 months suggests it may not be the ideal term, she told AFN. “We’re seeing that for some consumers, ‘animal-free’ can sometimes be conflated with plant-based.” This is potentially problematic given that Perfect Day is making real dairy proteins that come with a milk allergen warning, she noted.

When animal products are no longer made by animals, what do we call them?  

Retailers have also been unsure where to merchandise products containing whey, egg, or collagen proteins made without animals, sometimes putting these items in their growing plant-based sets, which could both confuse shoppers and restrict their potential, claimed Fowler.

For example, using real dairy proteins (made by microbes, not cows) can deliver superior taste and performance over plant-based products in categories such as cheese or ice cream, she claimed. But if these products are merchandised in the plant-based section, consumers may assume they won’t meet expectations on taste or texture “as some plant based products have very low repeat rates.”

The ‘animal-free’ term is also only applicable to a certain number of ingredients produced by members of the new Precision Fermentation Alliance (PFA), said Fowler: “If you think about the wide swath of products that could be emerging with precision fermentation technology such as sweeteners, colors and flavors, the animal free aspect is irrelevant to many of them.”

Finally, she said, ‘animal-free’ products could appear in hybrid products that might combine ingredients such as plant proteins and animal-based fats. If one ingredient is flagged up as ‘animal-free’ on the label, it doesn’t mean the whole product is animal-free or vegan, she added, raising the possibility of further confusion.

We’re now recommending ‘whey protein from fermentation’

So what terminology is Perfect Day proposing instead? “We’re now recommending ‘whey protein from fermentation,’” said Fowler.

“The process of fermentation has really been the unlock in comprehension for consumers, who understand that fermentation has been used through the millennia to create all types of foods.”

While the word ‘fermentation’ on a product with dairy proteins might make some people think of things like yogurt and kefir that are made with cow’s milk, she said, “We believe we have the qualitative and quantitative data to show that this is the clearest path forward.

“We are working in collaboration with the PFA and we’re sharing our learnings with them. However, it’s important to say that there’s never going to be a one-size-fits-all solution, and perhaps for some players who are leaning into an ‘animal-free’ benefit territory, they might decide that they still want to use that term. It’s accurate, but it’s just not as clear as it could be.”

As for the term ‘vegan,’ while it might be technically accurate on brands using Perfect Day’s dairy proteins, as they are made without animals, it might not be helpful, she said, especially if some vegans see this term as a proxy for dairy-free. “

Change Foods may reconsider terminology, says more research is coming from the GFI

Irina Gerry, a former Danone executive who joined startup Change Foods​​ (making cheese with dairy proteins made by microbes, not cows) as chief marketing officer in late 2020, told AFN that she had also started to reconsider the term ‘animal-free.’

She explained: “The Perfect Day team mentioned its latest research to me, and based on these findings we may want to reconsider our recommended nomenclature. I am open to considering ‘whey protein from fermentation’ as a replacement for ‘animal-free/non-animal whey,’ but they have not yet shared these results with the rest of PFA members for alignment. So I wouldn’t say that we are ready to call for nomenclature change at this time.

“Further, PFA is collaborating with the GFI [the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit advocating for ethical and sustainable alternatives to industrialized animal agriculture] on precision fermentation nomenclature, research that GFI is conducting in the next two months. We plan to include the top performing terms from prior research from several PFA members and align on our recommendation as an industry upon its conclusion.”

Matt Gibson, cofounder and CEO at startup New Culture—which makes mozzarella with dairy proteins made by microbes—told AFN: “It’s great to see more work being done on terminology which is an enabler for the success of our industry. At New Culture we’re always looking for the clearest and most effective ways to talk about our delicious, animal-free cheese and the way we make it.”

Israeli precision fermentation startup Imagindairy is “also considering various options for nomenclature, with the aim to communicate transparently and effectively with the consumers,” said VP business development Roni Zidon-Eyal. “So far, we have also used the term ‘animal-free’ but are open to evaluating new definitions.”

Younger consumers open to technologies such as precision fermentation if they deliver ethical or environmental benefits, says The Hartman Group

Fowler was talking to AFN following the release of a new report by The Hartman Group in partnership with Perfect Day and Cargill based on a survey of 2,500+ US adults. This shows that younger consumers are especially open to technologies such as precision fermentation if they provided ethical or environmental benefits, she claimed.

“Younger consumers… want to support companies with values that align with theirs around the environment and animal welfare. In the past, consumers looking for more sustainable options might have headed to the natural and organic set, but in future we can see retailers creating planet positive sets, that might feature a more sustainable type of traditional dairy, for example, and dairy from precision fermentation.”

As for genetic engineering, she added, the Hartman Group’s research suggested that it is beginning to shed some of its baggage as a new generation of consumers—many of whom did not experience the well-publicized battles over GMOs in the 1990s—have a more open mind about its potential.

“We do not shy away from talking about genetic engineering; if anything we’re trying to celebrate it. Millennials and Gen Z consumers see change as necessary and inevitable.”

‘Science and technology in the service of nature’

According to The Hartman Group, food tech companies that align their products and brands with the “values underlying consumers’ ideals of ‘natural’ food—connection, care, simplicity, stewardship, and resilience”—are the most likely to succeed. And clean labels are still critical, said the firm.

“Consumers will still draw on their desire for clean and healthy food when evaluating new products made through precision fermentation. A compelling framework for innovation can build on the idea of science and technology in the service of nature.”

Read The Hartman Group’s white paper, ‘Fermenting the Future: The Growing Opportunity for Products Made with Precision Fermentation.’

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