One of the leading criticisms of animal proteins is that their production is not environmentally friendly. Carbon emissions, waste byproducts, and high water and land usage—not to mention animal welfare—are all considered drawbacks of the dairy production process. And still, people love dairy protein. Consumers like its clean, neutral, milky flavor/texture, and food, beverage, and dietary supplement makers love that dairy proteins’ organoleptic properties ease formulating. Plant proteins are proposed as an earth-friendlier option to dairy proteins, but the fact is that many plant proteins’ grassy or beany flavors can run astray of the dairy protein experience that consumers like and, more importantly, are used to. But what if you could have both? What if you could have a dairy protein that tastes delicious but that can also be produced without harming the welfare of animals or the planet? Sounds like a dream come true? Thanks to a startup ingredient supplier called Perfect Day (Emeryville, CA), this solution now exists.
Perfect Day has devised a way to produce dairy proteins using microbial fermentation. Perfect Day was founded in 2014 by Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi. Both became vegan as adolescents, driven by their concerns about animal welfare and the environmental unsustainability of producing and consuming animal products. Even as committed vegans, however, they still hated the taste and texture of the non-dairy protein products available at the time, and they sorely missed the dairy products they had loved. When the two met, “what we didn’t realize at the time was that we were both vegans but not exactly happy with the options that were out there,” Pandya says.
In 2014, Pandya had just started his career as a biomedical scientist in the U.S. Gandhi, meanwhile, was in India working as a research assistant. Prior to that, he had studied biomedical engineering at The State University of New York at Stony Brook, working in the lab of associate professor David A. Rubenstein, PhD, to develop tissue scaffolds. A mutual friend, Isha Datar, the executive director of a nonprofit research institute called New Harvest, introduced Pandya and Gandhi via e-mail. New Harvest funds research focusing on “cellular agriculture”—processes to “make animal products—without animals.” Shortly after they met, Pandya and Gandhi set out to find a way to make non-animal dairy proteins. They decided to turn their focus to dairy products first—and the milk proteins within, specifically whey and casein—for one simple reason: they both loved dairy.
Shortly after founding Perfect Day in 2014, the two worked with a team of scientists, engineers, chefs, and food developers to improve and perfect the fermentation process ultimately used to produce Perfect Day proteins. Perfect Day owns the patent to its process.
The process works like this. The company uses a microflora from the Trichoderma genus, a genus commonly used in the bioproducts industry to produce protein. (“Trichoderma produces a lot of protein naturally and is one of the top performers in the bioproducts industry,” Pandya says.) Perfect Day harnessed this ability to create milk proteins in microflora. Using what it says are common tools of biology, the company inserts the genetic information responsible in cows for making specific milk proteins (casein and whey) into the microflora so that the flora can produce the proteins via fermentation in tanks instead. “We call this flora-based dairy protein, since it comes from flora instead of animals,” the company says. “By combining the milk protein genes with Trichoderma, we successfully domesticated the world’s first dairy-producing flora.”
The company uses this process to create vegan, lactose-free, hormone- and antibiotic-free dairy proteins that it says formulate with just as much ease as conventional dairy proteins and that sidestep the sustainability negatives of dairy protein. Nutritionally and organoleptically, Perfect Day’s non-animal dairy protein is a match with conventional animal protein, including amino acid profile, offering consumers the same clean, appealing taste as dairy protein, the company says.
“We’re the only company doing flora-based dairy,” Pandya says. “There are a few other companies using a similar model using fermentation to create ingredients and products, but Perfect Day is the first to bring a product to market for people to actually taste, and to use the term flora-based to try to educate consumers on this new category.”
This past summer, as Pandya mentioned, Perfect Day gave customers a taste of its flora-based protein in the form of a test-run, limited-edition, animal-free dairy ice cream sold through the company’s website only. By combining the flora-based protein with water, non-lactose sugars, and plant-based fats in the same proportions as found in cow’s milk, the company was able to create the animal-free milk with which to formulate the ice cream.
“The first product we chose to launch, back in July, was ice cream made from our animal-free milk base,” says Pandya. “The protein is what enabled it to have that creamy texture and mouthfeel. Those who have tasted our ice cream note that it lacks the iciness or chalkiness of many plant-based ice creams, and brings the experience in line with what you’d expect from a premium ice cream made with cow’s milk.”
Consumer appreciation for this innovation is high: the test-run ice cream sold out on Perfect Day’s website in just one day. “We were thrilled by the overwhelming response to our limited release,” says Gandhi. “There was so much buzz and excitement amongst our community of supporters, and we are still riding the wave from that initial launch.”
Companies, both finished-product brands and ingredient firms, are also interested in the possibilities Perfect Day offers. The flora-based dairy proteins can be used in many ways, not only to produce the same dairy-based foods we know and love (milk, cheese, yogurt) but also, potentially, products like dietary supplements. “Because it’s the same kind of protein that food makers are already familiar with, it’s simple to use flora-based dairy protein in exactly the same ways you’d use dairy protein from cow’s milk,” the company says.
Pandya adds, “While our current focus is on whey protein, we’re committed to developing all major milk protein fractions, because the fermentation process is surprisingly simple. We combine our microflora with plant-based sugar and put it through fermentation. Afterward, we filter out the flora and remaining sugar and dry the protein into a powder that can be implemented into all sorts of products.”
In November 2018, Perfect Day and the Archer Daniels Midland Co. (ADM; Chicago) signed a joint agreement to develop and commercialize animal-free dairy proteins. (“These animal-free dairy proteins will be the first in the world to be produced at large scale via fermentation instead of using farmed animals, which have historically been the only way to produce dairy proteins,” the companies’ press release states.)
“We are working with ADM to optimize and scale up the production of our protein,” says Gandhi. “ADM has been a leader in plant proteins for many, many years, and working with them has and will enable us to propel this source of dairy protein that can lead to endless opportunities for food innovators and consumers.”
And it’s likely just the beginning. Perfect Day says that as of October 2019, it has received $62.5 million in funding. (It currently employs just over 70 people.) Says Pandya, “While we cannot share specific details about the number of requests [we’ve received] to partner, we have been overwhelmed by the positive response and are excited for what’s to come in the near future.” The company says interest is coming from “some of the most well-known food and dairy companies in the world,” as well as from smaller food makers and even culinary chefs.
Education will still be needed to introduce flora-based protein to consumers, the company says. To those who question the naturalness of a Perfect Day protein, the company points out that the fermentation techniques used to create Perfect Day’s dairy proteins are the same as those used for more than half a century to create ingredients like vitamins, probiotics, and natural flavors. “Fermentation is natural,” the company says. “It’s been used for centuries to preserve and improve foods.”
Says Gandhi: “We, at Perfect Day, are dedicated to transparency, and we truly believe in educating consumers about this new category: flora-based foods. On our website and in our external communications, we include a breakdown of how the fermentation process works and how our protein is created. As we work with partners and continue to work through educating consumers on this category, we’re constantly assessing receptiveness and overall understanding of this category so that we can continue to share a clear message.”
Perfect Day is also communicating with the U.S. FDA regarding its proteins’ status as generally recognized as safe (GRAS). A third-party assessment affirmed the flora-based protein as GRAS. Says Pandya: “We submitted the GRAS filing for our non-animal whey protein to FDA in April 2019. Since 2014, we have been briefing the FDA on our process and discussing labeling for clear consumer communication.”
Milk made from non-animal dairy protein does not fall under FDA’s legal definition of milk, which FDA defines as “the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” Keeping these regulatory definitions in mind, Perfect Day says, “We have referred to our protein on packaging as ‘non-animal whey protein.’” (It adds: “There is precedent in the dairy industry and with the FDA for similar nomenclature as ‘non-animal rennet,’ a common component in cheesemaking. Non-animal rennet is also made through microflora fermentation.”)
“We are the first and only company scaling flora-based dairy, so we are on a mission to educate consumers on this new category and ensure we are working closely with the FDA,” the company says.
And, at the end of the day, Perfect Day’s proteins are all about expanding the options for consumers.
“Consumers want choices, and we recognize that there is no single type of protein that will satisfy every consumer,” says Pandya. “Our goal is to enable food makers to offer a new choice: products that not only taste great but that are also nutritious, sustainable, and humane. We are expanding the total ‘protein pie,’ so to speak, by providing food companies with a third, flora-based protein option.”
When will the first commercial foods be available featuring Perfect Day’s flora-based protein? “Given the timelines of our brand partners, we expect to be able to launch the first commercial product(s) within the next year,” says Pandya. The good news for consumers? Soon, very soon, you will be able to have your dairy proteins and eat sustainably, too.