- Brave new ‘animal-free’ world: When animal products are no longer made from animals, what do we call them? (And are they vegan?)
- By Elaine Watson 05-May-2021 – Last updated on 05-May-2021 at 17:26 GMT RELATED TAGS: animal-free dairy, vegan, Microbial fermentation, precision fermentation, Perfect Day, Change Foods
Thanks to advances in synthetic biology, with the right set of instructions, an army of microscopic little food factories (yeast, fungi, bacteria, algae etc) can now make animal proteins without animals, from collagen and egg albumin to whey protein if you feed them sugar and put them in a fermentation tank. But what do we call them? And are they vegan?
It’s a question that companies in this emerging ‘precision fermentation’ space have been wrestling with since day one (Is ‘vegan dairy’ an oxymoron? How can animal proteins like whey be ‘animal free’? If we invent a new term like ‘flora-made’ will it catch on?) as part of a broader debate over how to describe animal products as they become de-coupled from, well, animals.
If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck…?
In the plant-based arena, most companies use qualifiers (‘plant-based,’ ‘vegan,’ ‘dairy-free,’ ‘made from plants’) before the offending terms (meat/milk). And while Impossible Foods’ recent ‘We are Meat’ campaign (a phrase it doesn’t actually use in the ads themselves) has upset some commentators, the qualifying ‘made from plants’ stamp at the end spells out what its burgers are made from.
With precision fermentation and cell-cultured meat/milk, however, different issues are at play, because companies in this space are not simply mimicking the real thing, in many cases, they are making the same thing, just in a different way.
Cell-cultured meat is made from real animal cells (just without raising living, breathing animals), while protein characterization data from precision fermentation startup Perfect Day show that its ‘animal-free’ β-lactoglobulin (made with an engineered strain of the filamentous fungus Trichoderma reesei in a fermentation tank) is “identical to commercially available bovine-produced β-lactoglobulin [the key whey protein in cow’s milk].”
Players in the precision fermentation space are beginning to coalesce around the term ‘animal-free’ for the categoryAnd that matters for lots of reasons, not least because consumers with milk allergies need to know that Perfect Day’s product actually is whey protein, and as such comes with an allergen warning, for example, says Irina Gerry, a former Danone executive who recently joined startup Change Foods (on a mission to bring ‘real’ dairy cheese – minus the cows – to market) as chief marketing officer.
Right now, says Gerry, players in the precision fermentation space are beginning to coalesce around the term ‘animal-free’ for the category, and ‘precision fermentation’ for describing the technology (engineering microbes to produce target food ingredients from whey protein to collagen).“
However, it’s still early days, and companies will be conducting further consumer research to verify recommended terminology in the coming months.”
She adds: “I remember trying to explain to Danone colleagues where I was going [the new job], and I couldn’t even explain to them, as this whole non-dairy dairy concept is so confusing; it would take me three minutes to articulate what this is; it’s so new that it doesn’t even have a name.”
‘If we all geek out and forget the fact that people want to eat food, we’re in trouble’ And when it comes to food marketing, says Gerry, words really matter, something players in the cell-cultured (aka ‘cell-based,’ ‘cultivated’) meat arena recognized pretty early on (spoiler alert: ‘lab-grown meat’ doesn’t sound very appetizing) although they have yet to reach 100% consensus.“
We can have the best technology, but if we all geek out and forget the fact that people want to eat food, we’re in trouble. Microbial fermentation? Please. Nobody, nobody wants to have that, it sounds spoiled. The objective is to be clear in terms of what it is and what it isn’t, and to be differentiated from plant-based and cell-based [cell-cultured].”
‘We don’t want to sound like a science experiment’While some trade publications (including this one) use the term ‘microbial fermentation,’ meanwhile, this doesn’t mean anything to consumers, she adds. “Microbes equal foodborne illness… like Clorox is right there with microbial.”
If you take out the term ‘precision’ or ‘microbial’ and just stick with fermentation, however, there is also potential for confusion, she says, as ‘fermented dairy’ makes people think of things like yogurt and kefir made with cow’s milk.
“We don’t want to sound like a science experiment or a Petri dish thing. That’s why, to be honest with you, at Change Foods [which is hoping to test market products next year ahead of a larger 2023 launch], we’re going B2C; we’re b…