Researchers are close to releasing the first lab-made dairy products, saying they'll have the same look and taste of actual dairy products, but with no animals involved in their manufacture.
Unlike current dairy replacements that are based things like soy beans, almonds, and rice, this new product is still made from milk proteins. But instead of being produced by cows, these proteins are produced by yeast, and the result is a dairy milk that's both vegan and lactose free.
The Berkeley-based food tech company behind the new milk, Perfect Day (previously Muufri), says the benefits of their product isn't just for the individual consumer – by taking cows out of the equation, their milk produces up to 84 percent less carbon, as compared to traditional milk production.
"We're trying to make a 'Goldilocks product' that is better than anything out there: something that has the best of dairy products but also the best of the alternatives," Perfect Day co-founder Perumal Gandhi told Jessica Leber at Fast Company.
The product has been in the refinement stages since 2014, and Perfect Day is hoping to release a new line of cheese, yogurt, and milk sometime next year.
So how exactly does cow-free dairy milk work?
The team has created a genetically modified (GM) strain of yeast (nicknamed Buttercup) that can turn sugar into milk proteins known as casein. Similar to craft beer brewing, this relatively straight-forward process has been used to produce everything from insulin to biofuel in the past.
"This process is much cleaner and more resource-efficient than animal farming, and it's the cornerstone of our new approach to dairy," says Perfect Day.
Yeast-produced milk proteins are added to a mix of plant-based fats and sugars (meaning no lactose or cholesterol), plus many of the vitamins and minerals you would usually find in cow's milk.
"We have two goals: being rigorously transparent, but also having something on the shelf that you'd want to buy, and it's about striking a balance between them," co-founder Ryan Pandya told Chase Purdy at Quartz.
Now here's where it gets exciting, because if the team can get this to the shelves, the animal-free version of milk could be a whole lot better for our planet.
According to Leber at Fast Company, Perfect Day has just received results from a preliminary study by researchers from the University of the West of England and the European Commission Joint Research Centre, and things are looking pretty promising.
"Early data suggests their animal-free milk process could use 98 percent less water and 91 percent less land, and could emit 84 percent less carbon compared to traditional milk production," says Leber.
Considering some of the alternative milks out there also have incredibly high water use (we're talking 5 litres of water for one almond), this could be a win-win for the environment.
To be clear, these are preliminary results, and haven't been peer-reviewed just yet, so we can't get too excited about the implications. But even if this milk comes out at a fraction of those numbers, we're looking at a product that could help minimise the toll our enjoyment of animal products has on the planet.
The team is looking to bring the animal-free milk out in late 2017, at around the same price as standard milk, making it a competitive option to vegans, or carnivores alike.
We're excited to see if they can pull this off.