Don’t have a cow? Change Foods plans US launch of real dairy cheese made via microbial fermentation

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Left, CTO and associate professor Junior Te'o in the laboratory, right, founder and CEO David Bucca (all pics courtesy of Change Foods)
Left, CTO and associate professor Junior Te'o in the laboratory, right, founder and CEO David Bucca (all pics courtesy of Change Foods)

Related tags: Microbial fermentation, Cheese

Change Foods – one of a new breed of startups making real dairy ingredients using microbes instead of cows – is setting up shop in California, with ambitions to launch its first consumer products in the US market in 2023.

While microbial fermentation can be deployed to make everything from collagen to CBD, Change Foods ​has homed in on cheese because most plant-based alternatives still can’t match the real thing when it comes to stretch and meltability because they don’t contain casein, said founder and CEO David Bucca. 

“People love their cheese," ​added Bucca, who is in the process of moving from Melbourne, Australia, to the San Francisco Bay Area.

"We're addicted to cheese, and the nut- and legume-based products just don’t have the melt and stretch and mouthfeel of, say, American cheese you’d get in a burger," ​said Bucca, who previously worked at plant-based meat brand Hungry Planet and became convinced that the food industry has to explore more ethical and sustainable alternatives to industrialized animal agriculture.

"This is the perfect technology to recreate cheese because you can create bio-identical compounds that can truly replicate the functional properties of dairy.

“We want to go to market first in the US, in part because it’s a huge market but also because the regulatory environment is a lot further progressed for the approval of these compounds for food,” ​explained Bucca, a former aerospace engineer who is assembling a team of scientists and food industry veterans to turn his animal-free dream into commercial reality.

Perfect Day, for example, recently received a coveted ‘no objections’ letter from the FDA​ in response to its determination that whey proteins made via microbial fermentation are Generally Recognized as Safe or GRAS, noted Bucca, who notes that you can already buy animal-free’ dairy ice cream​ ​made by Perfect Day’s CPG spinoff The Urgent Co.

“It’s early days but there are also a few others in this space now such as New Culture​ (San Francisco), Remilk​ (Israel), Legendairy Foods ​(Germany), and Those Vegan Cowboys​ (Belgium). We’re unique because we are creating a proprietary matrix, which contains both milk proteins and fats, whereas some of the others are just focused on proteins and adding something like coconut fat, which won’t deliver the same experience."

Funding

Thus far Change Foods has raised around $525k with another $200k in the works, with plans to raise a further $5m in a round in Q2, 2021, said Bucca, who is using synthetic biology techniques to insert DNA sequences into microbes that effectively ‘program’ or ‘instruct’ them to express casein proteins and fats after feeding on a sugary substrate.

These will then form the building blocks of cheeses such as cheddar and mozzarella that do not require consumers to compromise at all on taste, texture or functionality, added Bucca, who is not disclosing the specific microbes Change Foods is using, but says it’s using a combination of yeast, bacterial and filamentous fungi platforms.

There are trade offs with each, he said, with bacterial systems growing more rapidly but requiring more post-processing, while fungal systems grow more slowly but don’t require so much work to harvest.

“We’re working with​ [Queensland University of Technology Associate Professor] Junior Te'o, who has been working with protein and lipid production using these microbial systems for years, so that’s a key strength of ours.

Yield is what has drawn people towards Trichoderma reesei​ [a fungi used by Perfect Day] but we’ve made a decision to pursue alternative options that provide additional benefits to our products."

Asked whether the leftover fermentation broth can be recycled or upcycled in some way, he said: “Actually we are working on a zero waste product, which is an even more exciting solution.”

As for intellectual property, one of Change Foods' advisory board members, microbiologist Dr Michael Christie, is also a leading patent attorney in Australia, and has been helping the startup plan its IP and patenting strategy, he said. 

Lactose-free

But what about nutrition? While Change Foods’ cheese will contain real dairy proteins and fats, what about calcium and other minerals and vitamins found in dairy cheese? And what about milk sugar (lactose)?

“We are able to formulate our products to maintain the beneficial nutrients of dairy, such as protein and calcium, while leaving out problematic ones like lactose and cholesterol. So you could say, we are creating a superior product, both from nutritional and sustainability point of view,​" said Bucca. 

The business model and go-to-market strategy

So what’s the business model and go-to-market strategy?

Unlike Perfect Day, which began with a b2b strategy, and teamed up with a major ingredients business (ADM), Change Foods will in the first instance create a consumer brand targeting retail and foodservice in order to prove the concept and demonstrate it has traction with consumers before pitching any ingredients to potential CPG partners, he said.

“We believe it’s better to seed the market with Change Cheddar, Change Mozzarella, and expand our footprint with retail and foodservice partners, and then as we scale and optimize our technology, we would consider a b2b expansion. It’s very difficult to go b2b with a new to the world technology.”

The plan is to “have test products for public consumption by the end of 2022, and then a retail launch some time in 2023.”

Do consumers want animal-free cheese?

But what is​ the appeal of animal-free cheese to consumers, who after all aren’t showing much inclination to reduce their cheese intakes (whereas fluid milk sales have been on a downward trajectory, and many shoppers at least claim to be trying to cut down on their meat intake)?

The fact there’s a growing market for plant-based cheese is proof that if you provide an alternative to dairy cheese, consumers will consider it, claimed Bucca, who pointed out that his cheese will tick all the boxes, providing a more sustainable alternative, without asking consumers to compromise on taste, texture, or performance.

And while you can’t make Change Foods’ cheese in Grandma’s kitchen, it’s way closer to the real thing than nut, legume, or starch-based ‘cheeses’ because to all intents and purposes, it is, basically, dairy cheese, he points out.  

The GMO factor

But could the firm’s use of synthetic biology/genetic engineering put some potential customers off?

Like fellow startup New Culture, Bucca observed that genetically engineered microbes are already widely used in cheesemaking to produce rennet (which curdles milk), although most consumers are not aware of this. (While rennet used to be made from the stomachs of newborn cows, today it’s made with an enzyme (chymosin) that’s been produced via fermentation using a genetically engineered bacterium​.)

And while the proteins and fats Change Foods is making are produced​ by​ genetically engineered microbes, he noted, the microbes themselves are filtered out during production, and no GMO ingredients are present in the final product.

“How we speak to consumers is really important. Our incoming CMO is from a big dairy background, and she really understands product market fit for alternative dairy in the US market, that’s her specialty and passion, so we’re thinking a lot about perceptional issues.

“We are going to be completely transparent, but we’re not a science company making food, we’re a food company backed by great science and I think fermentation actually has a lot of positive connotations for consumers these days, but we’re going to get ahead with the messaging and marketing long before we launch a product.”

*David Bucca will be speaking at the virtual Fermentation-Enabled Alternative Protein Summit on Jan 26-28. More details HERE

Related topics: R&D

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