Can Biohackers Succeed At Making 'Real Vegan Cheese'?

Scientific opinion varies on the practicality of animal-free dairy.

Science!

Real Vegan Cheese works out of the biohacker space Counter Culture Labs located in Oakland, Calif.Real Vegan Cheese

A group of Oakland, California-based biohackers believe they can create "real vegan cheese." Their goal - a cheese made with no animal products that fully evokes the real dairy deal – has struck a nerve: Real Vegan Cheese's crowdfunding campaign Indiegogo has surged many thousands of dollars past its initial funding goal of $15,000. It ends on August 10.

Here's how the group intends to do it, as reported in the East Bay Express:

The team will insert bovine DNA — which is chemically synthesized and does not come from an animal — into living baker's yeast cells, temporarily turning the yeast into a so-called "protein factory" that produces milk protein. The biohackers then extract that protein from the yeast and combine it with water, vegetable butter, and vegan sugar (instead of lactose), to make a milk substitute. Finally, this vegan milk can be turned into Real Vegan Cheese in the same way that normal cheese is produced from cow milk. The final food product will be a semi-hard cheese like Gouda. It will be totally vegan — and lactose-free. "No animal is tortured in the production of this," said Counter Culture Labs member Ahnon Milham, who is vegan. "You don't have to worry about all the hormones and antibiotics."

Real Vegan Cheese also claims their product could “address future food scarcity concerns,” since “yeast are renewable and the processes to cheese are nearly limitless,” and could also curb dairy farming's impacts on the environment – such as emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas, from cow farts and decomposing manure.

Could the yeast hacks and subsequent processing that Real Vegan Cheese proposes really work?

Responding to our questions via blog post, "Dr. Ricky," the pseudonymous writer behind "Science Based Cuisine" stated that "the campaign makes some scientifically dubious promises" because cheese-making is more complex at the molecular level than Real Vegan Cheese either knows or is letting on.

“Milk is chock full of a structure known as micelles,” Dr. Ricky writes, which form a framework that holds and transports lots of calcium to mammal offspring. This molecular structure is intrinsic to forming curds, a cheese precursor, which won't appear simply as a result of mixing several ingredients into a milk-like fluid.

“And leaving out lactose," Doc writes, "means that the microbes that can be supported would be quite different from the conventional cheese production." Meaning that they might come up with something edible, but what to call it depends upon how you define both "cheese" and "vegan," and whether you call yeast animals or plants.

But synthetic biologist and writer Christina Agapakis, a postdoctoral research fellow at University of California, Los Angeles, thinks Real Vegan Cheese could work. "It can sometimes be tricky to express proteins at high yield in yeast," she wrote in email, "but the goals of the project aren't unreasonable."

The project is likely to encounter the same technical and economic hurdles as any biotech endeavor in scaling up to mass production, however, combined with challenges unique to cultured dairy foods.

“Making good cheese isn't just a matter of getting animal vs. vegetable proteins,” Agapakis writes “but also in the quality of the milk and the way that the cheese is made: the way it's processed, the microbes that are added, and the way it's aged.”

But, notes Agapakis, there is already a food on the market that's comparable to a vegan cheese: tofu. Tofu is made by curdling soy milk, then draining and pressing the results into blocks. Tofu can also be pressed, fermented and aged to create varied textures and flavors, just like different dairy cheeses.

"I think it's great that they are bringing more attention to the impacts of animal agriculture and dairy farming in particular," writes Agapakis, "but I think it's also important (or at least interesting and relevant) to highlight the range and diversity of vegan options that are out there already. I think it's not really fair that they are using the 'vegan food sucks' narrative, mostly because there's such a huge range of things out there that are actually pretty tasty!"