Animal-free dairy a ‘massive opportunity’ says General Mills, which is in 'test and learn' mode with new brand Bold Cultr

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

'Our main goal is to deliver that real cheese experience without the animal...' Image credit: Bold Cultr/General Mills
'Our main goal is to deliver that real cheese experience without the animal...' Image credit: Bold Cultr/General Mills

Related tags: General mills, G-Works, Bold Cultr, animal-free dairy, animal-free, alternative protein

While some recent foodtech innovations could be described as solutions in search of a problem, ‘animal-free’ dairy products featuring real whey and casein made without cows, give consumers – most of whom are unwilling to compromise at all, especially when it comes to cheese – the first real opportunity to have their cake and eat it too in the dairy alternative set, argues the team behind General Mills’ latest innovation: Bold Cultr.

A lactose-free cream cheese alternative utilizing dairy proteins from Perfect Day made via microbial fermentation rather than cows, Bold Cultr ​was developed by General Mills’ corporate venture studio G-Works by Drake Ellingboe, Laura Engstrom and Illeme Amegatcher, and has just launched​ at BoldCultrFoods.com​ and in select Hy-Vee stores in Minnesota, with a foodservice launch planned in early 2022.

And while it’s very early days for this emerging category, concedes Ellingboe, the consumer proposition for Bold Cultr is clear: ‘Next gen’ dairy products that don’t rely on industrialized animal agriculture but offer functionality and nutrition that plant-based alternatives, right now at least, cannot match (the strapline deployed at a recent in-store sampling event at a Hy-Vee store was ‘All of the taste, none of the compromise​’).   

We talk a lot about this internally,” ​he told FoodNavigator-USA.

“Are we actually solving a problem, or are we just saying, Hey, this ingredient or technology is really cool, let's go find someone to sell it to?

"But that's not how we got to where we are. My team started with dairy, and it kept coming up that consumers could not find cheese alternatives that are like real cheese, so absolutely we believe this is a massive area of opportunity.”

Animal-free... but is it vegan?

The challenge – one that companies in the emerging ‘precision fermentation’ space have been wrestling with since day one - is how to describe animal products as they become de-coupled from animals? How can animal proteins such as whey or collagen or egg albumin be ‘animal free’​? And are they vegan?

The vegan question is not as simple as it sounds, first because the term ‘vegan’ is not legally defined in the US for food labeling purposes, and second, because not all vegans feel the same about it, said Ellingboe.

Vegans who avoid animal products because they oppose factory farming, for example, seem to be totally cool with whey protein made via fermentation, because it is made without the use of animals, he said. However, consumers that see the term ‘vegan’ as a proxy for allergen-free​, or plant-based, might be in for a rude awakening when they see a milk allergen warning on the label.

So to avoid any confusion, Bold Cultr has chosen not to use the term 'vegan' on pack for now, although it describes the products as vegan in the FAQ section​ of the brand’s website.

'We found that there's a little fatigue with consumers when you talk about plant-based'

Drake Ellingboe
Drake Ellingboe: 'It’s all about test and learn...'

Unlike Modern Kitchen​, a cream cheese alternative brand also utilizing Perfect Day’s animal-free whey protein that uses the phrase ‘made with plants and flora,’ however, General Mills has chosen to avoid referencing plants or plant-based ingredients on the front of the product label – despite the fact that all of the ingredients are plant-based aside from the non-animal whey protein.

It’s too early to determine the right labeling approach now, but it seemed important to avoid muddying the waters with references to plants given that products featuring non-animal whey require milk allergen warnings, said Ellingboe, who wants Bold Cultr products to sit next to regular dairy products in stores, rather than in a plant-based or ‘dairy alternative’ section.

This is a very new concept to consumers and even to the industry, so we decided to focus on three messages ​[on the front of the product label]: next gen, non-animal, and contains milk allergens.

“We found that there's a little fatigue with consumers when you talk about plant based, so we didn’t want to jump down that path, and we felt like next gen took us to a different place after talking with consumers in one-on-one interviews and through digital testing.”

Consumers that want to learn more can look at the back of the pack, which has “some storytelling” ​around the animal-free concept, he said.

“We talk about how the product is made by 'recreating milk proteins using fermentation, not animals,' and if people still want to learn more, we direct them to the website.”

Bold Cultr cream cheese

INGREDIENTS​: Water, Oil Blend (Palm Oil, Palm Kernel Oil), Pea Protein, Dextrose, Modified Corn Starch, Non-Animal Whey Protein (Contains Milk Allergens), Titanium Dioxide (For Color), Salt, Xanthan Gum, Calcium Potassium Phosphate Citrate, Natural Flavor, Guar Gum, Cultures.

'It's all about test and learn...'

So what’s the go-to-market strategy for Bold Cultr?

“It’s all about test and learn​,” said Ellingboe, a former beverage entrepreneur who serves as the “commercial co-founder​” while Laura Engstrom brings consumer insights into the equation and Illeme Amegatcher is the “technical co-founder​,” although they “all kind of do everything.”

While the products have been at least a year in the making, the brand changed from ‘Renegade Creamery’ to ‘Bold Cultr’ relatively recently, said Ellingboe.

“As we got to a point of launching, we felt like Bold Cultr embodied what we are trying to do better. Bold hits on our vision and goal of revolutionizing animal products, and then we have 'cultr,' which is spelled in a funky way, so it looks cool, but also kind of ties in to traditional cheese making methods.”

 The formulation – which currently contains palm oil (not considered the most sustainable or healthy choice of fats) and titanium dioxide (a whitening agent that’s approved as a color additive exempt from certification​​​ ​​​in the US, but has attracted more scrutiny lately after the European Food Safety Authority said it “can no longer be considered a safe additive​”) – is a work in progress, he said.

However, clean label expectations vary by category and consumer, he noted. “Our main goal is to deliver that real cheese experience without the animal, but as we hear consumer feedback, we’ll take that into account and say how do we improve this?”

BoldCultr-2 General Mills
The first Bold Cultr product is a plain animal-free cheese made with non-animal whey protein from Perfect Day, with cheese alternative slices and shreds containing animal-free casein – a tougher nut to crack technically than animal-free whey – under development.Image credit: Bold Cultr/General Mills

What is animal-free dairy?​

MOOLESS animal free protein powder

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​​​) or genetically engineered crops such as soybeans or peas (Nobell Foods​​Moolec Science​​​).

Using synthetic biology, 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 its animal-free whey protein, which is expressed by a genetically engineered strain of the filamentous fungus Trichoderma​​​​, for example, Perfect Day notes that it is "identical to commercially available bovine-produced β-lactoglobulin”​​).  

Making ‘real’ dairy cheese without cows, argue animal-free dairy proponents, 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.

Animal-free whey proteins (from Berkeley-based Perfect Day​, a pioneer in the animal-free dairy space) now feature in several ice cream brands including Brave Robot and Nick’s​​, the Modern Kitchen​ animal-free cream cheese brand launched by The Urgent Company (backed by Perfect Day), Brave Robot cake mixes, and vegan protein powders from Natreve, and California Performance Company (the third brand launched by The Urgent Company).

Starbucks has also been testing items featuring milk and ice cream products from Perfect Day in a couple of its coffee shops in the Pacific Northwest.

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​).

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