Hey everyone, my name is Matt. I am the co-founder of New Culture, we are a recently funded vegan food/biotech startup that is making cow cheese without the cow.
I did an AMA on r/vegan last week and that went well so it was suggested I do one here.
We believe that great vegan cheese is the final frontier of this plant-based/clean foods movement. We have seen lab-grown meat and fat but very few dairy products. This is because dairy and especially cheese is one of those foods that is actually very very complicated and very unique in its structure and components. This makes it very difficult to mimic with purely plant-based ingredients which is why vegan hard cheeses are not great.
So we are taking the essential dairy proteins that give all the traits of dairy cheese that we love (texture, flavour, behaviour etc) and using microbes instead of a cow to produce them. We are then adding plant-based fats and sugars and making amazing tasting cheese without any animals :)
EDIT: you can be on our wait list to taste here!
EDIT 2: Thanks everyone for a fantastic AMA!
I’m not sure how far along you folks are with your goals yet, but which steps have been the most difficult to execute so far?
Also is there any publicly accessible info (eg pubmed databases) on pseudo-caseine that lacks the allergenic epitopes but retains structure and functionality? (Unless this has been the step you guys are stuck at... I genuinely wonder if your company has been approaching this through experiments/trial and error, or if you have an analytic system...)
Micelle reconstitution is a difficult step to get right, casein micelles are very very complicated and there is still no agreement in the dairy science world on what the right structure of a micelle is. We see the removal of the allergenic epitopes as the 2nd iteration of our product so something we will pay more attention to a bit further down the track. As the most important casein functionality wise - kappa casein - as very few allergenic epitopes when compared with alpha and beta the functionality should be preserved
There's a startup in the Bay area, Perfect Day, that's making vegan dairy products. How do you see yourself in this emerging market? Do you seek to compete against everyone, or do you see some advantage in collaborations as you all venture into a new field of food science?
Perfect Day are making the same proteins as us, however they are selling them to other food companies in a B2B way. We are a product company focussed on cheeses, turning our proteins into amazing tasting products
How does it melt? Can you make different ones, some that melt like mozzarella and some that are hard like parmesan?
We are starting with Mozzarella and making sure it MELTS which is very important. Yes we aim to make a variety of cow cheeses. Mozzarella is a great first cheese because there is minimal aging so we can perfect its development very quickly. Unlike Parmesan where we may need to wait a year before seeing if it tastes good!
Do you think that this will eventually become a more economically feasible option to the point where lab grown cheese will become the commercial norm?
With the right scale, yes, as with microbes we get into exponential growth which gets big very quickly. However we are a long long way off from this.
Hey LordRakzoon - yes that will be the plan. We know what the allergenic epitopes are of casein proteins so we can remove them and allow our cheese to be eaten by anyone
I know very little about meat grown from cultures. But I do know that one of the reasons they are struggling with finding a good flavor is because fats are harder to create or mimic while proteins are easier to synthesize. Cheeses are a food that has a higher ratio of fats to protein is that something that your company has to struggle with?
Yes fat is very important, especially for a fresh cheese like Mozzarella where the taste doesn't come so much from the bacterial culture. We are working on different plant fat combinations to find the optimal pairing.
How does your approach differ from other cow-free dairy producers like Perfect Day (formerly Muufri)? Your website contains no details. In addition, how do you plan to replace lactose and standard milk fats? Would we get the liquid equivalent of margarine?
The process of producing the casein proteins is similar but Perfect Day are a B2B company and we are B2C. Our downstream processing techniques are also very different and optimized for cheese. We are using other disaccharide sugars to replace lactose and vegetable lipids to replace fats
What do your current products taste and look like now? All the pics on your recent twitter seem to be in black and white so it's hard to say, are you skipping out on the color because it doesn't look right yet?
What does the cost look like compared to dairy cheese right now? Dairy cheese is super cheap, how soon do you think you'll be able to compete and scale up to have the product in grocery stores?
We have had that feedback a lot. Branding is a big deal for me and the simplicity and minimalism of black and white and what it represents is what I love and why I focus so much on it. We'll be getting some color shots up on our social media soon. We are still at least 18 months from hitting the market so right now our cheese is a lot more expensive than current cheese but as we scale we hope to get to a cost competitive point. Some cheese can command quite a high price, our first cheese we are focussing on is fresh Mozzarella.
Is there any posibillity to test this? Can you produce varying kinds of cheese?
What would be the difference between making cow-less "cheese" versus making cow-less "Milk" and then making cheese from that?
Thats a great question, cowless milk is actually harder to make then cowless cheese - it's a lot more of a 'natural' product in terms of being very unprocessed. Cheese is a processed product giving us a bit more control of its attributes.
Is there any type of cheese that you are focusing on replicating? Which types do you think you can mimic the best?
Fresh Mozzarella to start with, then focus on the harder cheeses. Completely plant based cream cheeses are actually quite good so we see no reason to head in that direction
Have you had any consumer feedback to it's taste vs cow based cheese?
We are not at the point where we are having tastings as still getting the science of it all perfected. Hopefully that will come soon!
Similar to lab-grown meat, I am the co-founder of a recently funded startup
What makes you so similar to lab-grown meat?
I think we occupy the same broad umbrella of 'clean food' and we are both making animal products without the animal
Why do you keep specifying cow cheese? Is there some difference between cow cheese and goat cheese etc that make a difference, or is it just preference?
The dairy proteins we are producing are from cows, we would like to branch out to other animals as well such as goat and sheep cheeses.
Are you getting pushback yet from the dairy industry? Here in Canada it's like a cartel, where large companies and milk quotas prevent newcomers. It would be interesting if you could actually sell your cheese cheaper here than regular products since prices would not be artificially inflated.
Margarine had a very hard time entering the market here due to dairy industry pushback. They wouldn't allow margarine to have the same color as butter.
Hey yes i'm from NZ (we're currently based in San Francisco) so we have a massive dairy industry entrenched in our economy here as well. The world is definitely changing from when margarine was first launched and there is a massive appetite for sustainable food.
Possibly not-too-appropriate question, but are you guys hiring engineers? I'm in the process of finishing a PhD involving Organ printing - Where we basically culture cells inside hydrogels and pattern them and allow them to grow. The overall process feels like something that could translate well to processes used for lab-grown meats / lab-grown cheeses etc (After some modifications of course), and I personally would love to be involved in a place that may have more of an immediate impact on people.
Always keen to hear more, you can contact us through our site if you want to speak a bit more about what you are doing
You talk about how this cheese you're making is for sustainability. What is it about cheese today that currently makes it not sustainable? I'm a big cheese lover myself, so I'd be really interested to see how this comes along
Here is a great Guardian article talking about the sustainability of different milks including dairy milk. Just remember that 1kg of dairy milk makes 100g of cheese so that makes cheese a lot of unsustainable then dairy milk which is already unsustainable - https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-46654042
Calorie wise how will this compare to regular cheese? Like real mozerella cheese VS your method for example.
Our cheese will have no cholesterol and less saturated fats :)
Hey Matt! Thanks so much for doing this AMA!
I have a more philosophical question for you rather than a question about the product itself.
As a fellow vegan, I want nothing more than the abolishment of factory farming and the end of animal abuse and exploitation. To that end, I am so hopeful that lab-grown meat/dairy will one day replace "traditional" meat/dairy as the norm.
However, though I definitely see these technologies having a huge impact on the animal agriculture industry in the far, far future, it seems that in the short to medium term, it's actually doing a lot to hurt the movement. As you've said elsewhere in this thread, it'll be a very long time before lab-grown foods will become the norm.
I've seen a lot of people (probably hundreds) on Reddit saying that though they "disagree" with factory farming, they'll only give up meat/dairy when there is a replacement that tastes exactly the same and is cheaper. In other words, they're using the promise of lab-grown meat/dairy as an excuse for them to continue funding animal abuse now (and likely for the next few decades at the very least). I can't help but thinking that if lab-grown meat/dairy wasn't such a hot topic, more people would acknowledge that they can and should go vegan now instead of waiting until they have to give up literally nothing to do so.
Sorry if this is super inarticulate lol. I'm a bit hungover.
TL;DR Basically, what I'm trying to ask is: as somebody who is vegan for the animals, do you think that the prevalence of lab-grown meat/dairy in the news might actually be hurting the movement by convincing people that they can continue funding animal abuse/exploitation until these lab-grown foods are available and affordable?
Also I just want to emphasize/clarify that I'm not criticizing you or the company in any way! I genuinely just want to hear your thoughts on this conundrum as somebody who is directly involved with this technology. You're doing 1000x more for the animals through this than I ever will, and I (and they) appreciate it! Thanks for the AMA!
Hey that's a great question and something I haven't actually thought about from that perspective. What you are saying may be correct but on the flipside I think these movements are getting people to question why these clean food movements are happening and then question where their food is currently coming from and why it needs to change.
Have you pursued a kosher agency to certify your product? Non-dairy cheese could have a decent market amongst observant Jews!
Not yet, we are still quite a way off from market so as that gets closer we'll definitely look to do that
What’s the expiration timeframe like in comparison to normal cheese?
Also, I’ve noticed my vegan cheese doesn’t melt very well. How will this compare?
Meltability is very important and is why having these specific dairy proteins we are developing in microbes is so important because they are responsible for this.
Did you love cheese before becoming vegan, if so which was your favourite and does it match up if you've been able to create it yet?
Absolutely, which is why I am wanting to do this. Fresh Mozzarella has always been one of my favourites!
How is the cost compared to normal cheese?
Right now it will be much more expensive - this makes sense as we are still very much in the R&D phase. However when we scale we will be reducing this cost to competitive levels
I'm wondering about the level of processing in many of the vegan products out there. It seems like it would be healthier to just eat real food that is vegan (veggies, good fats and fruit). What am I not thinking of? Is it just that people want more variety in taste, texture, etc.? Thanks.
Here is my answer I gave to another question about processing: "I think it makes sense to have a definition of what you call processed, for example, every fruit and vegetable we eat today is extremely processed, looking nothing like they did 100 years ago. The same can be said with meat, look at what chickens and turkeys look like now compared with 50 years ago. We have actually artificially selected turkeys for breast size to such a degree, that they cannot even mate now. We have to artificially inseminate them. If you also then talk about antibiotics and hormones that are rampant in the meat industry you can then see how what we are doing can be considered cleaner."
French here. Are you talking American « cheese » or you know... the real deal?
(read a ripe melty Camembert for instance.)
THE REAL DEAL :)
What is the most difficult attribute of dairy cheese to mimic?
I explained this in more detail in another answer that dairy micelles are very very complicated and the hardest to get right
What will happen to all the unemployed cows?
They'll hopefully be able to run around free!
My main problem with impossible meet and beyond meat is that they are significantly more expensive than regular meat. This is plant-based protein. This cannot not be more expensive. The price of plant-based alternative proteins must come down before people will adopt it. When do you think this will occur? And what still needs to happen, other than economies of scale?
This will happen eventually but yes I agree, cost is the most important factor along with taste. It is purely the maturation of the technology which is still quite new that will bring the costs down as well as finding new innovative ways to scale cheaper.
Not to be rude, but what makes this different than other vegan food options?
Sure, what makes us different is that we are producing the very same proteins found in milk but without the cow.
How much more environmentally friendly is your cheese than traditional cheese?
We are still putting those figures together as we worth through the science. Even though I can't give you exact numbers, it will be much much more environmentally friendly then traditional cheese
This may have already been asked but do you expect a kind of backlash from the cheese industry the same way lab grown meat and plant based milks has? If so what precautions are you taking?
I think that will be likely, we are going to be transparent about what we are doing and why
Do you plan to market to consumers first or pizza restaurants?
What toppings are going on your first vegan-cheese pizza?
Partnering with restaurants first is something the impossible burger did very well and makes sense in a lot of ways. A traditional Margareta pizza with our cheese would be fantastic!
Wow, this is actually very similar to my capstone project and I would love to ask a few questions if that's okay.
Have you gotten pushback from stakeholders in the dairy industry in response to your substituting products?
Is collaboration possible with an industry that is so competitive and territorial? How? Grassroots organization, working with farmers themselves, etc?
How do you identify marketing opportunities for your products?
When creating new products or recipes, how do you prioritize the following qualities: Environmental impact? Similarity to animal-based alternatives? Price? Community impact?
Cool! No not yet, we have actually gotten encouraging support from dairy manufacturers so far. I think collaboration may make sense from a manufacturing and product dev point of view as dairy manufacturers just have so much expert knowledge for the large manufacture of cheese. This space is quite interesting to people so that definitely helps, we hope our cheese will speak for itself in a lot of ways and grow through word of mouth
Would it not be easier to take one step back and try and make vegan milk first (actual milk, not some plant extract imitation)?
Thats a great question and I explained in an answer above that milk is actually harder to make than cheese. Milk is a very natural product with not much processing at all, compared with cheese with more processing involved. We are definitely making a milk-like product that you take through the standard cheesemaking process, but it is not optimized for milk.
Will it taste like cheese? Currently my wife, who loves cheese but it does not love her back, tried some vegan cheese only to spit it out. I tried it too and it just tastes like yellow shaved plastic with a funky aftertaste. Regular shaved plastic would be better, honestly.
That's exactly why we are doing this as most vegan cheese aren't great. It has to taste like cheese otherwise we will not convert people to a more sustainable product.
How do you think the cheese will do aged? Could it have a shelf life like that of Parmesan that has been aged 5 years? I've noticed the "warnings" on the lab grown meat saying they should be fully cooked, and they are perishable, I was wondering if your product could withstand aging like a 5 year Parmesan.
Thank you for the AMA! This is fascinating to me.
Yes we haven't looked properly into aged cheeses but can't see why not. Actually it would be possible to understand the breakdown of peptides over time that contribute to the taste of aged cheeses and simply make those peptides from scratch, meaning we could have ageless aged cheese :)
Why are you trying to put cows out of work?
I think they deserve a break :)
Will it be safe for people with lactose intolerance?
Yip we are lactose free!
How closely does this replicate conventional cheese in terms of how it behaves in certain conditions (grated, heated, etc.)? Do you think "normal" cheese will still have a place in the market or is lab grown the way of the future?
We want it to have all those traits and make them even better with our cheese. Thats a good question, I think dairy cheese from animals will become more of a high end product in the future
Do you think the stigmas around vegan meat and cheese will eventually disappear?
Yes, we have already seen the rise of plant-based foods and eventually vegan meats and dairy will get to a point where they are indistinguishable from real meat and dairy
Are there certain cheese flavors that are harder to replicate than others?
Yes, the fresher the cheese the harder it is to replicate the flavour. In most cheeses, 95% of the flavour comes from the bacteria culture
Is there personal backstory behind coming up with the idea of making a better "cow free" cheese? Like, what made you first decide "this is what I'm going to make"?
Yea I come from New Zealand and we are a big Dairy Exporter. I noticed that there is a lot of work going into 'lab grown meat' but very little work going into a dairy equivalent. That's when I decided to pursue cheese
Professional cook/chef here. Can I ask...why? Like if you don’t want to eat animal products, fine. But all this technology, protein synthesizing, lab-driven stuff isn’t food. It’s Soylent Green. If you want to be vegan, just eat plants, they’re delicious. If you want to eat animals, eat animals. They’re delicious. All the processing is what’s ruining food in America. Just eat real fucking food, everything in moderation, and you’ll be fine. This frankenfood stuff is gross. Change my mind.
I think it makes sense to have a definition of what you call processed, for example, every fruit and vegetable we eat today is extremely processed, looking nothing like they did 100 years ago. The same can be said with meat, look at what chickens and turkeys look like now compared with 50 years ago. We have actually artificially selected turkeys for breast size to such a degree, that they cannot even mate now. We have to artificially inseminate them. If you also then talk about antibiotics and hormones that are rampant in the meat industry you can then see how what we are doing can be considered cleaner.
Are you guys hiring? My sister graduated last year with a food science major from Cal Poly.
Cool! Please ask her to get in touch! :)
Cow cheese with out the cow. Why not just call it non-dairy cheese?
We want to emphasise that fact that it has all the traits of cow cheese, it is not just another vegan cheese
How does it feel to waste so much effort and money on something that only a tiny portion of any population wants?
I can understand your sentiment but 70% of millennials and gen z want more sustainable foods. The plant based dairy foods market is already valued in the billions so there must be some demand :)
The microbes are not animals? Or, are they not consumed in the process? In the latter case, is something produced by a tiny organism in any way better than something produced by a big one?
Sure, technically microbes are not classified as animals, and from a vegan point of view we can consider them to not be sentient so if we are just looking at the ethics of it, it is much better to use microbes then a sentient large mammal.
I know mozzarella is your current focus, but have you thought of brie? It has a somewhat similar texture to fresh mozzarella, just with a rind. I have tried every plant based brie that I've come across, and nothing comes close. I'd pay big bucks for a dairy free brie.
That is a very tempting second product, because of what you mention - nothing comes close to replicating brie in the plant based world
Is it possible to make butter with this?
Unfortunately not, we'll leave butter to another company!
how do you plan on making cheese without cheese. and why? why would you ever do this
The main reason is because current cheese production and dairy production in general is extremely unsustainable
How do you market that in a simplistic way? Good commercials, online stuff, ads, are all good. But how, like on packaging, do you catch the eye and convince the average shopper to understand and buy your product without any prior knowledge?
Thats a great question and something we are brainstorming on. Any suggestions? :)
As a lactose intolerant person I’m intrigued, but also, honestly, I’m still gonna eat regular cheese.
One problem I’ve had with vegan subs is they never taste like cheese. They taste like the crappy powdered cheese. What are you going to do to prevent this?
A lot of that taste and mouthfeel comes from these essential dairy proteins we are producing with microbes. Taste is vital, we are making sure it will taste just like the real thing
What is the starting point of such an experiment? I mean how exactly do you start copying the cheese? I'm quite curious!
First figuring out what is essential for traits we love about cheese! Then experimenting with those
How does the caloric/nutritional value of your synthetic cheese compare to cheese from a cow?
Our cheese will have no cholesterol and less saturated fats
Considering vegans imply that a vegan option is the "better" alternative socially/morally, how can you consider a concocted product to be better than a natural one? What do you believe will happen to cows? "Roaming free" isn't an option in the real world.
As we artificially inseminate most cows and very few cows are being born through 'natural' methods I think there will be a natural reduction in cow numbers but simply from a reduction of artificial insemination.
How do lab grown products fare in blind taste tests?
Hey we are not at that stage yet. Hopefully soon!
Will the plant-based fats and sugars used to make this new cheese be any more healthy than those that come from a cow, or will it be roughly the same in healthiness for human consumption?
Sugar is generally sugar for the most part, however with fats we aim to have less saturated fats if any, and no cholesterol
Will you be able to produce cheese from other animals like a goat for example?
Anywhere I can try it in Northern California?