The dairy-free cheese fridge at your local health food store could stand as a monument to the human capacity for both boundless creativity and self-deception. Roam its chilled confines and you might find ersatz cashew-nut camembert or blue-veined wedges of coconut-derived faux stilton. There may be pale logs of rice starch mozzarella, or chickpea flour formed into a ridged truckle of imitation parmesan. These products point to an ever-expanding galaxy of choices and a buoyant industry where, according to The Good Food Institute, sales grew by 18 per cent in the US in 2019 (compared with just one per cent growth for traditional animal-derived cheese). There is a revolution underway; an artisanal boom in plant-based fermentation far better than what was available even a decade ago. And forecasts predict the global vegan cheese market to almost triple in worth, to $7 billion (£5.1 billion), by 2030.
The only issue with this mountain of cleverly conceived products – which anyone who has bought, tasted or smelled them will confirm – is that, fundamentally, they are not cheese. Cut them with a knife and they generally smear rather than crumble. Eyeball them closely and they often betray the fact they are taupe nut or greyish pea protein patés. Go in for a sniff and you’re likely to be hit with a pungent, confounding mix of coconut oil and the chemical backnote of masking aromas. And then there is the taste: an intense wash of salt, fat, thickening agents and pappy mouthfeel where the best you can hope for is neutral inoffensiveness and the worst-case-scenario is something acrid, actively unpleasant and somewhat haunting. You don’t really forget your first bad vegan cheese experience. That was to be the case, to a career-changing degree, for Ryan Pandya.
It was early 2014 and Pandya, having graduated from Tufts University in Massachusetts with a degree in chemical and biological engineering, was working for an antibody manufacturing company in Boston. Recently committed to keeping a plant-based diet, he found himself with a sudden, unshakeable craving for a cream cheese bagel. And so he did what any self-respecting vegan would do: he drove for 20 minutes during his lunch break, to a place he had heard served an animal-free version. From the moment some of the pale, dairy-free gloop spilled from the sandwich – dripping on to his trouser leg – he knew he had made a huge mistake. “It was just not good,” he says, remembering the moment. “It was runny and drippy and cardboard-flavoured.”
Plenty of people would have simply hurled the rest of the bagel in the nearest bin and resolved to avoid that particular vegan cream cheese brand in the future. But not Pandya, who, even over video call from his apartment in San Francisco, has a serene self-confidence. The scientist in him couldn’t understand it, much less accept it. And so, as soon as he got back to work, he began googling to find out what was in animal milk that wasn’t in the various plant-derived alternatives he splashed into his cereal and his coffee. “Coming at it from a scientific perspective, you can’t help but realise that there’s no magic in cows or in milk,” he says. “It’s just chemistry and biology. So it stands to reason that if you had an almond milk that had whatever ingredients are in cow’s milk, and you make it act like cow’s milk, you would have a vegan version of milk.”
The answers that Pandya found that day – the mystical ingredients – were casein and whey protein. These are the molecular building blocks that, in combination, give milk (and, ultimately, cheese) its unique texture, taste and ineffable, creamy deliciousness. Casein in particular (which has such a variable structure that there’s a lack of consensus over what it actually looks like) is the coagulating component that causes real cheese to stretch, melt and bubble so delectably.
The scientific vogue at this time – thanks to the 2013 breakthrough of Dutch company Mosa Meat’s Sergey Brin-backed, lab-grown beef burger – was for artificially cultured meat. Given that Pandya was already using yeast cells to rapidly replicate proteins in his day job, he couldn’t help but wonder if the same principle could be applied to make milk, thus ridding the world of environmentally harmful animal agriculture and, of course, terrible vegan cream cheese.
He mentioned the idea to Isha Datar, a friend who was the director of nascent cellular agriculture nonprofit New Harvest. She put Pandya in touch with Perumal Gandhi, a New York-based vegan scientist who, spookily enough, had shared the exact same dairy-protein-printing brainwave with her. In spring 2014, Pandya and Gandhi found themselves in Cork, Ireland as part of Synbio Axlr8r (now known as RebelBio), a biotech startup accelerator, ready to put their theories into practice.
“Every organism in the world can speak the same language of DNA,” explains Pandya. “So if there’s a protein sequence that a cow thinks of as whey protein, and somehow a yeast cell is reading that same DNA sequence, it’ll print out the exact same protein. And, you know, the biology industry has sort of harnessed this for 50 years to make things like enzymes and medicines.”
After Pandya found the genetic sequence of cow milk protein in an online database, the next stage of the process involved “kits that you can literally buy”. Having obtained yeast from food approval authority the USDA, Pandya and Gandhi then genetically engineered it with a “blueprint” of that cow milk protein DNA. “You pour in the DNA, shake it, add salt and then the minute the DNA is inside of the microflora cell, it’s almost immediately being turned into protein,” Pandya says.
This marked the creation of their own modified yeast that, when fed sugars and fats, could grow milk proteins. Essentially, Perfect Day’s gene-altered microbe had been enlisted to play the role of a cow (they nicknamed it “Buttercup”). This material is ultimately completely removed, so the final protein is both GMO and animal free. “So from there, the question was, ‘OK, now how do I get it out? How do I make it as pure as possible? And how do I make enough to make it actually profitable?’” Pandya says.
Pandya and Gandhi’s new company – initially known as Muufri, before becoming Perfect Day – grew at a similarly dramatic clip to those multiplying proteins. After a year they had accrued more than $4 million in funding and moved into a San Francisco lab facility; by 2018 they had gained an extra $24 million and counted Hong Kong businesswoman Solina Chau as an investor; in 2020, their accumulative funding hit $360 million, their ranks swelled to 150 employees and Bob Iger, in one of his first major acts since stepping down as Disney chief executive, joined the board.
Now, after seven years, they are at the forefront of an increasingly crowded lab-made, cow-free dairy market. New Culture, another Bay Area startup, is using a similar protein-replication method to produce balls of mozzarella cheese with that signature elasticity. In Singapore, TurtleTree Labs has turned cells from cows, goats and even camels into bioreactor-grown milk. And Impossible Foods, having already conquered the plant-based burger sector, announced in October 2020 that work was underway on an Impossible Milk prototype.
The white gold rush is on. And Pandya feels, after plenty of triumphal false dawns for VC-funded cellular agriculture, that Perfect Day’s proprietary dairy protein – which it plans to sell to other businesses in isolated form – represents a significant market shift, set to start with (what else) an animal-free cream cheese partnership planned for 2021. “I think there’s a step change that is happening now,” Pandya says. “Because we can actually achieve the same kind of melt-in-your-mouth profile and flavours that you actually get with dairy.”
Of course, as the dubious riches of the dairy-free cheese aisle tell us, the proof tends to be in the pudding with these things. And so, in November 2020, Pandya arranged to send samples of the cream cheese prototype from a lab in the Bay Area to my house in south London. Three small pots arrive. On a video call, Sascha Weiss, Perfect Day’s head research chef, instructs me to open the one marked “Roasted Red Pepper”; it is an appealingly glossy, whipped mound, flecked and stained a warm terracotta red, and the scent is a waft of spice and lactic freshness.
I dip in a spoon, taste, laugh and taste again. Weiss is talking about taking inspiration from North African harissa and suggesting dates as a surprisingly effective accompaniment. But, in truth, I am only half-listening. Because it is cheese – emphatically creamy, tangy, indulgent cheese.
If you had to design a purposefully resource-intensive and environmentally dicey food production system, it might look a lot like large-scale agricultural dairy farming. A 2020 report by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy found that the largest 13 dairy companies in the world are now responsible for the same level of combined greenhouse gas emissions as the entirety of the UK. Cheese is not necessarily the lesser evil to meat that sustainability-conscious vegetarians and flexitarians would love to think: a major 2018 study published in Science found that the average greenhouse gas impact of cheese production (5.1 kg of CO2 per 100g of protein) was higher than that of both pork (4.6kg) and poultry (2.1kg).
These truths, amid a worsening climate crisis, are enough to dull the pleasure of even the most transcendent hunk of gorgonzola. In late 2014 – around the same time that Pandya and Gandhi were back from Ireland and receiving their first significant funding – Sorosh Tavakoli, a Stockholm-based ad tech entrepreneur, was selling his first company, plotting his next move, and grappling with the same issue: namely, how we square the hidden environmental cost attached to the things we love to eat. “It’s just ridiculous how much energy is used to produce food,” Tavakoli says. “Especially animal-based food. And so as I was looking for how I could have an impact [with my next venture], I kind of went, ‘Holy shit!’ Here we have every possible environmental aspect – water, land use, biodiversity, greenhouse gases – all impacted by animal-based foods. So if we can get people to shift their diets, then we can tick so many of these boxes.”
Lean and bespectacled with a scruff of salt-and-pepper stubble, Tavakoli possesses a bright-eyed idealism and a disarming, bullshit-averse honesty. Born in Iran but raised in the Swedish city of Uppsala, Tavakoli had an inherited respect for resources; for hot water, light and energy. Handed time and financial security by the sale of his first business – a video advertising platform called Videoplaza – he wanted his next startup to have “climate impact built into the business model”. And so he set about searching for a viable foothold in the new frontier of plant-based protein, embarking on a six-week research trip to the Bay Area’s emerging cradle of cellular agriculture, and spending long months unsuccessfully exploring the market potential of, first, tempeh (the nubbly Indonesian fermented soybean cake) and then protein powder derived from duckweed algae.
It wasn’t until spring 2018 that Tavakoli settled on a viable vessel for these new, environmentally-minded ideals. After he made an open call for expert collaborators, he was contacted by Anja Leissner, a food scientist and former dairy industry employee with a background of research into plant proteins and a sense that dairy-free cheese was still an untapped market. “You only need to buy vegan cheeses to understand the desperate need for a better alternative,” Leissner says, sitting beside Tavakoli in a darkening office in Stockholm’s Solna district. “There is so much potential.”
Leissner was the scientific mind Tavakoli needed. In 2019, Stockeld Dreamery (previously known as Noquo Foods, as in ‘not the status quo’) was born with the hope of achieving the same category dominance as Perfect Day. Or, as the mission statement emblazoned on the back wall of its small HQ has it: ‘Make cheese or die trying’.
Though Tavakoli and Leissner are also attempting to emulate satisfying dairy proteins without the direct involvement of an animal, they are doing it in a markedly different way. Whereas Perfect Day’s yeast-fermenting approach creates protein practically from thin air, Stockeld Dreamery will still be using plants as a base. By analysing and combining fava bean and pea proteins, their plan is to find a molecular match with casein that can then be used as the basis for an emulsion and – once it’s combined with fat, cultured and pressed – an animal-free cheese with that elusive, textural secret sauce. Think of it as a middle point between microbial agriculture’s painstaking precision and the cruder mimicry of some currently available vegan cheese alternatives, which, Pandya notes, try to replicate casein and whey with “gums, starches, stabilisers and emulsifiers in a kind of unholy abomination of ingredients that don’t want to be together”.
Stockeld Dreamery’s method contrasts with Perfect Day’s in that it does not use any animal DNA. “It’s difficult to go into detail without… going into detail,” Leissner says as she tries to explain the process without giving the secret away to rival businesses. “But it’s all about building a stable matrix [with the fava bean and pea proteins] that will behave the way we want. Science can’t tell us exactly what a casein micelle [the structures that hold casein protein] looks like, but we can know how it behaves in different circumstances; whether that’s a meltable cheese or a spreadable cheese.”
Having received a boost of $3.6 million in investment in early 2020, Stockeld Dreamery will launch its first cheese – a feta-inspired variety called The Chunk – in 2021, through partnerships with Swedish cafes and restaurants. The R&D phase has meant navigating an occasionally bumpy road; they have made half a ton of cheese and early samples were, in Leissner’s words, “a mushy, lumpy, complete mess [that] tasted terrible”.
But now Tavakoli and Leissner are sufficiently pleased with The Chunk, which takes three days to produce, to courier me their latest prototype to sample in my kitchen while they both look on expectantly. Formed into a slightly off-white slab of shrink-wrapped plastic, it perhaps lacks the instant visual allure of Perfect Day’s samples. However, the scent – a high, intense plume of freshness – is pleasantly arresting. And the crumbly, relatively open texture is streets ahead of the dense, tofu-like lumps of coconut oil and starch that are generally packaged as vegan “feta”. Taste-wise, there is nuanced salt, tang and a strangely beguiling wash of creaminess.
It is not, perhaps, the sort of thing that would fool people in a blind taste trial. But Leissner’s diligent work on casein emulation and deliberate restraint as far as additional ingredients goes – beyond fats, nutritional yeast, salt and added B12, The Chunk is free of plant-based cheese’s usual laundry list of thickeners and gums – represents a clear step up. And, crucially, as cellular agriculture dairy companies have to play the long game (and battle European regulatory laws that currently don’t allow lab-made protein to be categorised and sold as food), Stockeld Dreamery is on the precipice of getting its product on the plates of consumers. “I think [microbial fermentation] is extremely interesting, but the drawback is that it’s unproven and will take time,” Leissner says. “And I honestly don’t think we have the time to spare. We need to get this thing going; we need to make an impact. And you can only do that if you can get it out to the masses.” Tavakoli nods. “The planet is boiling,” he adds.
In August 2019, underneath a cartoonishly blue Los Angeles sky, Pandya and Gandhi joined other Perfect Day employees beside a branded truck to hand out tubs of a prototype vegan ice cream – the first significant product they had made with their protein, before they turned their attention to cheese – to eager, steadily growing crowds. It was a carefully choreographed marketing exercise, replete with cameras, merch giveaways and wary vegans who thought the whole thing was an elaborate, cruel prank. But it was also a vital staging post for Pandya and Gandhi, who, five years after founding their business (and 18 months after they’d initially promised their first launch), were understandably anxious to take their breakthroughs from the lab to the public.
“We wanted to prime the pump, in a way,” says Pandya. “To just run with something and show the world we were ready.” The ice cream – which they also offered online as part of a limited 3,000-pint run that sold out in 11 hours – was ultimately instructive about the business in other ways too. For one thing, it justified an early decision to focus on producing lab-made whey protein rather than the trickier casein (which is to say, “creamy” rather than “stretchy”). It was a proof-of-concept for their first official, licensed partnership – a vegan range with Bay Area ice cream chain Smitten. And, what’s more, given that they had produced the ice cream in vast commercial facilities designed to work with traditional animal dairy, it swiftly eradicated the question marks about scale and viability that have tended to slow the progress of cultured meat startups.
“We didn’t want to be the $325,000 burger,” says Pandya, referencing how much it cost to produce Mosa Meat’s initial headline-grabbing, lab-grown patty. “So pretty much from day one we knew that our first priority was going to be to hire people that could actually help make [the business] commercialisable. And dairy is valuable nutrition for a large part of the world, so we had to make sure it’s accessible and available to all people, and not just a premium product for the yuppies on the coast.” For consumers, Perfect Day’s cream cheese pricing will be comparable to the ice creams it has already released (which range from about $12 to $15 a pint). “So, a small premium for animal-free, approaching parity as we scale,” Pandya says.
Part of this expansion is already underway (perhaps most obviously in the company’s recent move to a sprawling Berkeley lab facility and HQ over five times the size of its previous offices). The other factor of scale that Pandya and Gandhi have had to adapt to is that their business-to-business model means dealing with gigantic food conglomerates and dairy companies that demand robust, stress-tested global supply chains. “We come from a world where a kilogram is a huge amount of stuff,” Pandya says. “In dairy, 100 tonnes is not very much.” He laughs. “But we’re now at the point where we’re making these sort of 100-tonne quantities of protein.”
Though no commercial partner for Perfect Day’s cream cheese trial has been announced yet (“The paradox is that the bigger the company and wider the distribution, the slower they move,” Pandya notes), its recent scale-up was enabled in part by a development partnership with US agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). By working with Big Food corporations, Perfect Day is largely in keeping with the mass market approach taken by other plant-based and biotech businesses in recent years; in 2018, pioneering vegan cheese brand Miyoko’s joined a Nestlé-backed accelerator, and in 2020, Impossible Foods signed a landmark deal with Burger King. For Pandya, working with, rather than against, Big Dairy makes total sense, because Perfect Day is “not trying to make something niche”.
Stockeld Dreamery has a different approach. Rather than working with big corporate clients – or focusing on specialist retail, as other plant-based cheesemakers have tended to – Tavakoli and Leissner feel that professional chefs present the best route to success for them (David Zilber, former head of fermentation at famed Copenhagen restaurant Noma, has “been a bit involved in helping us,” according to Tavakoli). The reason for this is partly a practical attempt to make maximum impact with relatively limited resources, and also a way to try to curate how people first interact with Stockeld Dreamery’s cheese. “We want it to be used in a good way,” Tavakoli says. “And people are also much more willing to try something new in a restaurant compared to in the supermarket.” This tactical play should not be mistaken for a lack of ambition, however; Tavakoli’s plan is for other, trickier products to follow The Chunk (including a meltable cheese called The Melt and a slicing one called, wait for it, The Slice). “Our ambition is to be the category leader in next generation cheese products,” he says. “And it’s a very clear path we’re on.”
There is no doubt that the relatively scrappy operation at Stockeld Dreamery (where the hydraulic press they are using to produce cheese is intended for car workshops) has been able to put something very impressive together in just two years. But the question hovering over all of this – the thing that remains to be seen – is whether they will be able to compete when the likes of Perfect Day bring products that are nutritionally identical to real dairy (though only requiring genetic code rather than the involvement of an animal) to market. Does The Chunk represent enough of a jump from the passable plant-based alternatives currently available? And will climate guilt outweigh the drop in familiarity for enough people? I’m not so sure. But Tavakoli is adamant that being first out of the blocks counts for something.
“The case that for me really speaks [in favour of] our approach is the [success of] plant-based milks,” he says. “I don’t think anyone would try to launch an animal-free ‘real’ cow’s milk now, because people have moved to oat and soy and coconut. You could say, ‘Oh, we’re Perfect Day and we can make amazing milk now.’ But no one cares! They’ve moved on. The reference has changed. And so the question is, can you make good enough cheese using plants? If you do, you will get the market. And honestly, I think what you just tried competes with feta. I think if you bring a real feta out with cow protein, I don’t think people are gonna care.”
Few things underline public eagerness for vegan cheese, even in its current form, like pioneering plant-based cheesemonger La Fauxmagerie. Launched in 2019 to howls of incredulity (and a public spat with Dairy UK over its right to use the word “cheese”), the East London-based shop has gone from strength to strength, branching out into vegan cheese and wine evenings, inspiring similar operations around the world and recently celebrating a Christmas period where sales were up ten times what they were in the first year.
You would expect Charlotte Stevens – co-founder and owner with her sister Rachel – to be more excited than most about this new frontier in animal-free cheesemaking. But, as we talk over a video call in January 2021, she sounds sceptical about the lofty promises being made by companies like Perfect Day, Stockeld Dreamery, New Culture and the raft of others.
“If something tastes good, or better, then we’ll stock it, but I’m a little wary,” Stevens says, talking from the basement of La Fauxmagerie. “Even if a company has added casein protein to a cheese to improve mouthfeel, is it really going to be doing anything different to the plant-based coagulants that are added to a lot of the cheeses we sell? Probably not. My worry with these things is that it is exactly the same as what we’ve got but with better marketing.”
Stevens admits that something with the firm robustness of a cheddar would be appealing. “The overall texture that we struggle with in the plant-based world is hardness,” she says. “So if they could focus on harder fats that would be great.”
Traditionally, the barrier to achieving this aged, dense character without animal dairy has been the relative youth of most traditional vegan cheese companies (“The average cheddar takes 18 months – a lot of the companies [we stock] haven’t been in business for much longer than that,” says Stevens) and the presence of rennet, a family of digestive, thickening enzymes found in calves stomachs and also integral to the production of, for instance, parmesan.
But rennet can be synthesised in other ways (either from plants like artichokes or, handily, from genetically modified yeast). Another microbial fermentation biotech company, the US-Australian firm Change Foods, is boldly promising grateable animal-free cheddar and parmesan cheeses among its first batch of products in 2023. And, for his part, Pandya presents Perfect Day’s decision to initially focus on soft cheese (i.e. something predominantly powered by whey rather than casein protein) as a matter of business strategy, rather than a scientific inability to replicate those crumblier, sliceable varieties.
“In the world of cheese, there are soft spreadable ones, crumbly dry ones and there are melty, stretchy ones,” he says. “The melty, stretchy thing is absolutely the most challenging holy grail thing to do. Because there’s only one protein known to man that does this, and it’s casein.” He pauses, laying out the logic. “Now, if we started with casein, we would have a really exciting single category to play in, which is that it stretches. Whereas [with whey protein] we can show more breadth. And then, we’ll do stretchy cheese anyway.”
Another potential hurdle that Stevens identifies is that, anecdotally, some of her customers would feel uncomfortable eating something that contained even 3D-printed genetic material from an animal. Perhaps aware of this, Perfect Day filters out all genetic code from its protein to ensure it is non-GMO and, in its words, “100 per cent absent of animal genetic code”.
Even if strict vegans prove wary of animal-free cheeses that are expressly designed to appeal to those that love and crave real dairy, Tavakoli thinks there will still be a large market. “I should mention that none of us are vegans,” he says. “And, honestly, we try not to think about the vegans. The V word is forbidden. Because the problem isn’t that people don’t realise how animals are treated. The problem is that the [plant-based] cheeses are disgusting. They just aren’t a product that enough people like to eat.”
More companies than ever are populating the space – New Culture was boosted in 2019 by $3.5 million funding from Kraft Heinz; Remilk, a similarly-pitched Israeli company,raised $11.3 million in 2020. Then there is the pandemic’s exposure of the frailties of antiquated, unwieldy food supply chains, and recent regulatory breakthroughs in the wider field of cellular agriculture – notably the December 2020 landmark of startup Eat Just selling its first bioreactor-grown chicken in Singapore. There is momentum.
Pandya, for his part, is reminding himself of the need to be patient, and – when he allows himself to dream – envisions a future when the breakthroughs set in motion by that bad bagel are so widespread as to be practically invisible. “The big win would be when you go to some random little deli in the middle of the country, get a sandwich with cheese on it, and that cheese just so happens to be made without animals,” he says. “It isn’t even mentioned, it isn’t the big reason you went, and you didn’t pay extra. It’s just the way we do it now.”
More great stories from WIRED
💊 A dying child, a mother’s love and the drug that changed medicine
😷 Coronavirus vaccines are making some long Covid sufferers feel better
🎧 Upgrading your headphones on a budget? We tested all of Amazon’s cheapest sets