The website for Renegade Creamery (which also has a Facebook page that launched in March), features mock-ups of cream cheese, shredded cheese, and cheese slices combining plant-based ingredients with dairy proteins made via fermentation.
General Mills does not currently play in the plant-based or regular cheese category, but has developed plant-based yogurts under the Oui and GoGurt brands, vegan mac & cheese (Annie’s), and has invested in plant-based dairy such as Kite Hill and plant-based seafood brand Good Catch via its 301 Inc ventures arm.
On the Renegade Creamery website, General Mills explains that its animal-free cheese has the “delicious taste and texture of dairy cheese” but is “animal free to reduce greenhouse gases…”.
It does not go into detail about the production process, but adds: “We start with our signature plant-based formula and then add dairy proteins we created using well-established fermentation techniques. These proteins are identical to those found in cow's milk, but without the cow. The result? A delicious cheese with the same great taste and texture you love!”
The ‘About Us’ section then explains that, “Renegade Creamery is a development brand within the General Mills organization that strives to connect with consumers in order to better understand their needs and produce solutions that provide value.
“General Mills aims to make food that people love through connection and collaboration. Our approach to innovation — connects employees with inventors, academics, entrepreneurs, suppliers, customers and consumers throughout the innovation process.”
General Mills: ‘We’re always listening and testing new ideas with our consumers in the marketplace’
A General Mills spokesperson told FoodNavigator-USA it is not providing further comment right now, but added: “As part of General Mills’ innovation strategy, we’re always listening and testing new ideas with our consumers in the marketplace. And in an effort to be agile, we test and experiment with brands and products to better understand a consumer need often showcasing different concepts or ideas.
“While some brands stick others don’t. At this point, we have nothing specific to share on this as it’s noted as a development brand.”
What is animal-free dairy?
There is no formal definition of ‘animal-free’ dairy – a term being tested by some startups in the space – but it typically refers to products made with ‘real’ dairy ingredients (whey, casein etc) that are produced without cows, either via genetically engineered microbes (Perfect Day, Brave Robot, Change Foods, New Culture, Formo, Remilk, Imagindairy, Those Vegan Cowboys etc) or genetically engineered crops such as soybeans or peas (Nobell Foods, Moolec Science).
Using synthetic biology techniques, firms in this space use DNA sequences like pieces of computer code to program or instruct plants or single celled organisms such as fungi and yeast to express animal proteins. The final proteins do not contain any modified genetic material and are already familiar to the food industry (in its GRAS determination for animal-free whey protein, for example, Perfect Day notes that it is "identical to commercially available bovine-produced β-lactoglobulin”).
But why do this in the first place?
While plant-based cheese is getting better all the time, say animal-free startups, it has only captured a tiny fraction of the cheese market (US retail sales +21% to $236m in year to July 11, according to SPINS data) because products still don't deliver for many consumers, who would like to make more sustainable or ethical choices, but aren’t willing to compromise on taste, nutrition, or performance.
Making ‘real’ dairy cheese without cows, they argue, offers the best of both worlds: more sustainable and ethical products that don’t involve industrialized animal agriculture, but still deliver the nutrition and functionality of ‘real’ dairy.
This is particularly relevant in products such as cheddar and mozzarella cheese, in which casein proteins become stretchy when cheese melts, and release flavor molecules when they’re broken down by enzymes during the cheese-making process.
The commercial landscape for animal-free dairy proteins
Animal-free whey proteins (from Berkeley-based Perfect Day) have already been commercialized, and now feature in several successful ice cream brands including Brave Robot and Nick’s.
Animal-free casein proteins - which are more challenging to create without cows on a large scale - are still under development, although several startups say they are gearing up to launch cheeses featuring animal-free casein proteins in the next couple of years (there are four different types of casein protein and it may not be necessary to produce all of them to get the kind of functionality formulators are looking for).
Perfect Day - a pioneer in the animal-free dairy space which has raised more than $360m from investors including Temasek and Horizons Ventures to date - did not say whether it is working with General Mills as the supplier of the casein proteins for Renegade Creamery, but told us in April that it is talking to a wide variety of potential partners from startups to multinationals.
According to a recent lifecycle assessment, Perfect Day's non-animal whey protein produces up to 97% fewer greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than whey protein from cows.
Brave new ‘animal-free’ world: When animal products are no longer made from animals, what do we call them? (And are they vegan?)
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?