Don’t have a cow? Perfect Day lifecycle assessment underscores sustainability benefits of animal-free dairy proteins

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Perfect Day’s non animal whey protein features in several ice cream brands including Brave Robot. Image credit: The Urgent Company
Perfect Day’s non animal whey protein features in several ice cream brands including Brave Robot. Image credit: The Urgent Company

Related tags Perfect Day animal-free animal-free dairy

Berkeley-based startup Perfect Day has underscored its sustainability credentials with the release of an expanded lifecycle assessment suggesting its ‘non-animal’ whey protein - produced by microbes, not cows – has a dramatically lower environmental footprint than animal-derived whey protein.

The lifecycle assessment​ (LCA) ​- conducted by consultancy WSP USA and critically reviewed by a panel of independent experts in conformance with ISO Standard 14067 on GHG emissions – showed that Perfect Day's non-animal whey protein production reduces blue water consumption by 96-99%, and non-renewable energy use by 29-60% vs conventional production methods.

The assessment extends the scope of the LCA the company shared in April​, which showed its animal-free whey generates 62-97% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than whey from cows.

While the figure at the top end of the scale presupposes that there is a market for the nutrient-rich co-product of the fermentation process, which accounts for a sizeable percentage (78.3%) of the biomass by dry weight, the gap in GHG emissions between fermentation-based and animal-based production remains significant even if this co-product ends up as waste, according to the LCA.

"The co-product is high in proteins and other components (e.g., vitamins, minerals) that make it valuable for domesticated pet food, and it will be sold to this market. The co-product is dried using a natural gas-powered dryer before it is sold."

The primary driver of GHG emissions for Perfect Day whey protein is utilities (natural gas and electricity), which contribute 40% to total GHG emissions. After utilities, the protein development phase -  due to the production of glucose via starch hydrolysis - contributes 25% to total GHG emissions.  

How is the animal-free whey protein made?

Rather than raising farm animals, companies in the 'precision fermentation' space such as Perfect Day use DNA sequences which function like strings of computer code to instruct host micro-organisms (fungi, yeast, bacteria etc) to produce specific animal proteins when fed with sugars and other nutrients in big fermentation vessels, a technology that has been used in the food industry for years to produce everything from beta-carotene to vitamin B2.

Perfect Day’s non animal whey protein – which now features in ice cream brands including Brave Robot, Nick’s, and Graeter’s, with more high-profile launches in the works – is produced via a strain of the filamentous fungus Trichoderma reesei​​​ and is identical to commercially available bovine-produced β-lactoglobulin.

While corn is the current source of dextrose as a feedstock, the sugar input could come from a variety of sources (sugar beet, sugarcane, or upcycled cellulosic feedstocks). 

The fermentation media comprises a variety of salts, trace metals, and a carbon source (glucose) and is fermented in 40,000-gallon silos. Amino acids consist of oxygen (bubbled into the fermentation tank), nitrogen (provided in the form of ammonium salts), and carbon (using dextrose, DE-95).

The whey protein is secreted into the fermentation broth, concentrated via ultrafiltration/diafiltration and spray dried, a process that uses a certain amount of water, energy, land, and other inputs, but has nothing close to environmental footprint of animal-derived whey, claims the company.

Ice cream, cheese, yogurt, creamers, milk...

 Perfect Day is talking to a wide variety of partners from startups to multinationals looking to develop a range of products utilizing its non-animal whey protein.

Speaking to us earlier this year, co-founder Ryan Pandya said that while ice cream was a great place to start, “The really exciting stuff is yet to come in terms of cheese and yogurts...​​

"There's also more functionality to be gained in the milk and creamer side than I realized a few years ago because if you try to create a cappuccino and you want a strong kind of stable foam, you can't really do that with plant based milk and in fact we heard this from one of the largest coffee companies in the world. And they're looking for that, they want that as a solution, which we can do​​. I was blown away that, how well our protein performs in that application.”

Life Cycle Assessment

The life cycle assessment looked at upstream production of the materials used for the Perfect Day process, such as corn grain for sugar production; production of all other inputs to the process (e.g., natural gas and electricity); and transportation of materials to the Perfect Day production facility. Perfect Day whey protein production also yields a solid biomass co-product that can be sold as an ingredient in
high-value domesticated animal pet food; therefore, mass allocation was applied to apportion the environmental impacts between the
primary product and co-product (since the economic value of the co-product is unknown).

Image credit: GettyImages-Artis777

Precision fermentation

While production of plant-based proteins has ramped up significantly, they do not always deliver the taste, nutrition and functionality of animal proteins, especially in formulations such as cheese and ice cream, prompting Perfect Day and others in the ‘precision fermentation’ space  to explore new ways to produce whey, casein, egg albumin, collagen, pepsin and other highly functional proteins without industrialized animal agriculture, which they argue raises ethical and environmental concerns.

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