ADM teams up with New Culture to scale up animal-free dairy platform

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Matt Gibson with the New Culture team: 'This partnership gives our team the chance to accelerate our path to commercialization and expand what’s possible for our product portfolio...' Image credit: New Culture
Matt Gibson with the New Culture team: 'This partnership gives our team the chance to accelerate our path to commercialization and expand what’s possible for our product portfolio...' Image credit: New Culture

Related tags New Culture Adm animal-free dairy animal-free precision fermentation Microbial fermentation Dairy

New Culture, a startup producing casein proteins (minus the cows) via microbial fermentation to make mozzarella and other dairy products has announced a strategic partnership with global ingredients giant ADM to scale up its animal-free dairy operation.

An investor in New Culture and fellow animal-free dairy co Perfect Day (which makes whey protein via microbial fermentation and announced a joint development agreement with ADM in 2018​) via its ADM Ventures arm, ADM said that its “production capacity for both fermentation and dairy operations will be made available to meet the demand for New Culture’s melty, stretchy cheese.”

ADM’s global manufacturing assets and expertise will “accelerate New Culture’s efforts toward commercializing their animal-free mozzarella in the US foodservice market, beginning with pizzerias in 2023,​” said ADM, which will also lend its expertise in ingredients and formulation to New Culture.

“The partnership will enable joint product development, taking advantage of New Culture’s innovations in novel ingredients and animal-free dairy products… New Culture will also have access to ADM’s full pantry of sustainable and plant-based ingredients and flavors as New Culture expands the use of animal-free casein into a wide range of animal-free dairy applications.”

GRAS determination in progress

New Culture co-founder and CEO Matt Gibson told FoodNavigator-USA that the plan is to launch in the foodservice market before shifting to retail and b2b ingredient sales further down the line: "Knowing that mozzarella is the #1 cheese consumed in the US, primarily through foodservice, we decided to launch in pizzerias to maximize our impact."

As for the regulatory pathway, he said: "We are going through the required steps to ensure our animal-free casein is GRAS, beginning in 2023 with self-GRAS and filing with the FDA." 

ADM Ventures: 'Casein and whey are very different dairy proteins with different functionalities'

Asked how ADM Ventures saw Perfect Day and New Culture fitting into its portfolio, Darren Streiler, VP, ADM Ventures, told us: "Perfect Day is mostly focused on whey protein and New Culture is focused on casein proteins, with initial launch in mozzarella cheese. These are very different dairy proteins with different functionalities."

He added: "ADM’s extensive network of fermentation capacity and manufacturing facilities offer a great opportunity for New Culture to scale and bring our animal-free cheese to market. Both companies are evaluating a range of options to move our partnership forward in support of New Culture’s commercialization plans. New Culture’s ambitions will require many partners to transform the dairy industry and this relationship with ADM is a major step toward realizing that vision."

Asked how important it will be to find more sustainable sources of fermentable sugars for industrial scale precision fermentation, he said: "ADM is working to de-carbonize its sugar production facilities and is making tremendous progress on that front."

Casein - key to the melty, stretchy, quality of certain cheeses

While it has its detractors​, using precision fermentation to make ‘real’ dairy ingredients 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 dairy.

Plant-based milks and creamers, cream cheeses and other dairy products have improved significantly in recent years, they point out.

However, firms seeking to replicate the functional and sensory qualities of cheeses such as mozzarella and Cheddar have experienced significant formulation challenges, in part because it’s hard to match casein, the protein in cow’s milk responsible for the ‘stretchy’ quality of such cheeses, claims San Leandro-based New Culture​​​.

And while multiple consumer products featuring animal-free whey protein are already on the market​​, casein is more difficult to produce at scale via microbial fermentation, said Matt Gibson, a New Zealander who moved to California to build New Culture (strapline: 'Cow cheese, without the cow').

'Any cheese is possible and can be made completely animal-free'

Gibson – who raised $25m in a series A round​ last fall - is using synthetic biology to insert DNA sequences into microbes that effectively ‘program’ or ‘instruct’ them to express casein proteins after feeding on a sugary substrate.

These can be formed into casein micelles, or clusters of casein proteins, which when produced by cows, fold up into a spherical ‘micelle’ structure so that the casein proteins can remain suspended indefinitely in the milk water, said Gibson in a recent interview​​​ with this publication.

“We are making a range of casein proteins and have completely mastered the art of reconstituting casein micelles with any and all types of animal-free casein.​​ Casein micelles give milk its color, functionality, nutrients, and ability for milk to go through the cheesemaking process and form any cheese of choice including mozzarella, unlike whey, which makes only limited cheeses such as ricotta and cream cheese."​​

As for calcium and other minerals and vitamins found in dairy cheese, he said, “We use calcium and other salts as a sort of catalyst to induce micelle formation by allowing the casein proteins to begin packing these salts and forming casein micelles.​​"​

Asked what microbes (eg. fungi, yeast etc) New Culture is using, which casein protein it is making, and whether it is also working on producing dairy fats via precision fermentation, Gibson said: "Since it’s proprietary, we don’t share details about microbes or casein ​[types].

"With our groundbreaking science, however, any cheese is possible and can be made completely animal-free. We use precision fermentation to produce our animal-free casein and once we have that casein in-hand, we mix it with plant-based fats, salt, a touch of sugar, vitamins, minerals and water for cheesemaking to produce our animal-free mozzarella."

ADM’s global manufacturing assets and expertise will “accelerate New Culture’s efforts toward commercializing their animal-free mozzarella in the US foodservice market, beginning with pizzerias in 2023.” Image credit: New Culture

Animal-free dairy in the marketplace

CO2COA animal free chocolate credit-Mars
Image credit: Mars

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, dairy fats etc.) that are produced without cows, either via genetically engineered microbes (Perfect Day​​​​​, Brave Robot​​​​​, Change Foods​​​​​, New Culture​​​​​, Formo​​​​​, Remilk​​​Better Dairy​,​ Imagindairy​​​​​, Those Vegan Cowboys etc​​​​​) or genetically engineered crops such as soybeans or peas (Nobell Foods​​​​Mozza Foods​, Moolec Science​​​​​).

Using synthetic biology, firms in this space genetically engineer plants or single celled organisms such as fungi and yeast to express animal proteins after feeding on sugars in fermentation tanks.

The final proteins 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 filamentous fungus​​​​, for example, Perfect Day notes that it is "identical to commercially available bovine-produced β-lactoglobulin”​​​​).  

Animal-free whey proteins from Perfect Day​​​​ now feature in several ice cream brands including Brave Robot, Coolhaus and Nick’s​​BOLD CULTR​​​ (General Mills) and Modern Kitchen​​​​ animal-free cream cheese; Brave Robot cake mixes; animal-free 'milk' brands such as Bored Cow, Strive Nutrition and Betterland; 'Mooless' vegan protein powders from Natreve, and 'V-whey' proteins from California Performance Company, and Mars​' new CO2COA chocolate, which launched direct to consumer at​​​ (pictured above left) in June.

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

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