A New Startup Wants to Make Your Milk "Perfect"

There may be no product as closely associated with wholesome virtue and innocence as a refreshing glass of milk. For 100 years or so, drinking milk has represented a simple ideal of bucolic farms, old-time animal husbandry, and honest-to-goodness nourishment. Unfortunately, the actual picture of the modern dairy farm is far less quaint. Today, most milk comes from massive industrial operations, where hundreds or thousands of cows on crowded farms are made to produce unnaturally large quantities of milk in a near-constant, year-round cycle.

Inside a modern dairy farm "milking room", where cows are milked automatically by machines

Inside a modern dairy farm "milking room", where cows are milked automatically by machines

It’s a system designed to maximize milk output, but comes at a huge expense to the environment, food safety, and animal welfare.  Dairy cows consume enormous amounts of water, produce massive amounts of waste, and their bodies are a potent source of methane– a major greenhouse gas.                                                                                                                         In addition, due to ever-present bacteria on farms and in cows' udders, milk is one of the most highly contaminated food products, which, even post-pasteurization, can carry Listeria, Salmonella, and E. Coli, while bodily fluids like blood and even pus have been found inside milk products.                                                                                                                             Perhaps most unfortunately, dairy cows themselves often endure a host of inhumane practices, including artificial insemination, intensive milk production, and forceful separation from their calves. The regimen of industrial milking is so exhaustive – the modern cow now produces about 20,000 lbs of milk every year – most animals are "spent" after about 5 years, and are subsequently sent to slaughter.

                                        A modern dairy feedlot: Not so idyllic - Photo: TheFern.org

                                        A modern dairy feedlot: Not so idyllic - Photo: TheFern.org

But Perfect Day Foods intends to change all that. Begun by Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi, this first-of-its-kind startup plans to take dairy where it’s never gone before: from large, unsustainable farms to the bold new space of biotech. Using special yeast that "ferment" the unique proteins found in cow’s milk, Perfect Day says they’re producing dairy milk - the basis of a global, $500 billion industry - in an entirely new and better way, without needing a single cow.

                                                      

The process begins with two singular proteins: casein and whey. These magical molecules help give dairy products their delightful taste, luscious mouthfeel, and in the case of cheese, remarkable abilities to melt, stretch, and do some amazing Maillard reactions on hot pizza. Casein and whey are what make milk milky and cheese cheesey, and their absence from plants explains why most non-dairy alternatives suffer from boring taste and texture.

So to produce milk that could realistically compete with cows, Gandhi and Pandya set out to make casein and whey using yeast instead of bovines. They accomplished this by taking specific cow's genes and inserting them into a special strain of yeast (nicknamed "Buttercup"), which then uptakes the genetic code, and after consuming sugar, outputs the desired protein. Since the process involves yeast converting sugar into different molecules, Gandhi and Pandya proudly call the protein action "fermentation." 

           Cow's milk proteins are fermented by yeast, then combined with fat, sugar, water, nutrients

           Cow's milk proteins are fermented by yeast, then combined with fat, sugar, water, nutrients

Once they've created a satisfactory amount, the yeast get removed, and the brand new whey or casein proteins get added to water and plant-based fats and sugars, yielding milk.

                                              Co-Founder Perumal Gandhi samples a test batch

                                              Co-Founder Perumal Gandhi samples a test batch

Gandhi and Pandya are well-aware of public skepticism towards anything remotely "genetic" and "modified", so are staying completely open and transparent about the process, trusting  once people understand its many benefits compared to industrial farming, they'll become believers. (Though it’s interesting to note, since none of the modified yeast goes into the milk, the final product is actually non-GMO.)

And what are these many benefits? According to Perfect Day, their product tastes the same as traditional milk, but uses only a fraction of the land, water, and energy consumed by dairy large farms, and because it comes from a controlled, sterile environment, it's a much cleaner, safer product that requires less pasteurization and boasts a longer shelf life. Nutritionally, it's brimming with the same robust protein, vitamins, and minerals found in cow's milk, and for those who can't digest dairy, they've made it 100% lactose-free. 

And because Perfect Day's product is molecularly identical to the real stuff, it offers a blank slate for crafting nearly every dairy indulgence imaginable, from milkshakes, cheesecakes and full-fat Greek yogurt to sour cream, butter, savory dressings, and of course, cheese - in every glorious form, shape, and color. It's the wow without the cow. 

                           The many possibilities for Perfect Day's cow-free milk products

                           The many possibilities for Perfect Day's cow-free milk products

What about food regulations? As it stands, milk is specifically defined by the FDA as "lacteal secretions" obtained by milking a cow, and it makes no provisions for animal-free alternatives. To sidestep this definition, Perfect Days plans (for now) to market their product as "animal-free". However, as research into cultured milk and other animal products rapidly advances, and these products inch closer to appearing on consumer markets, these definitions will likely change.

Just this summer, the National Academy of Sciences convened a special meeting of biotech innovators and experts to discuss the oncoming disruption of biotech in the food space, and forecast how these products might be labelled. Thus, the winds of regulatory change are quietly blowing, and for their part, Gandhi and Pandya say they've already begun similar talks with the FDA.

                   Milkmen:  Perfect Day's Perumal Gandhi and Ryan Pandya. (Photo: Jennifer Andersen)

                   Milkmen:  Perfect Day's Perumal Gandhi and Ryan Pandya. (Photo: Jennifer Andersen)

So when will the public get its first taste of this new dairy innovation? Perfect Day plans to release their first product sometime in late 2017, and though it will likely be priced similar to premium organic dairy products, they hope to drive those costs down and eventually become price-competitive with regular milk.

To that end, it sounds like they might already be making progress: According to Food Navigator, they're in talks with several major dairy companies about possible partnership, which could greatly enhance their product manufacturing and distribution capabilities. 

In the meantime, for all those who have been seeking a new way to indulge in their cheese or ice cream addiction without the environmental, contamination, or animal welfare baggage of conventional dairy farming, it looks like a new day could be dawning. And if Perfect Day has truly worked a miracle and made beloved dairy products even better, they will wait for it 'til the cows come home.