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Forget nut milk: Fungus-based dairy is real milk without the cow

Nut milks are everywhere. The nut beverage’s 2010 arrival in dairy cases helped lead to a 13% growth in milk alternatives, though it had been available in shelf-stable varieties for years. Now it’s easy to find oat, hemp, and cashew milks in a normal grocery story. Perfect Day hopes to spark a similar trend with its flora-based foods.

Co-founders Perumal Gandhi and Ryan Pandya were unenthusiastic vegans, whose dairy cravings never quite subsided. They went looking for a substitute that could allow them to enjoy cheese, milk, and ice cream again.

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Unlike plant-based beverages, the flora-based products are made from the same proteins as cow’s milk, only without the cow. It’s made by fermentation, with a boost from bioengineering. Artificial casein and whey genes (which are found in milk) are combined with a fungus, Trichoderma, that thrives on plant sugars, so the protein-creation process is animal-free.

Perfect Day Flora-Based Dairy Ice Cream
Perfect Day co-founders Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi want to create a new kind of dairy.

“We then carefully separate these milk proteins and combine them with plant-based sugar, plant-based fats, and nutrients to produce a product that has the identical taste and texture of cow’s milk, but packs in more nutrition with no food safety or contamination concerns,” Pandya told Digital Trends in 2016. Because Perfect Day is creating real milk proteins, those allergic to those them will still have to steer clear of its products. The goal is to create a product with the creaminess that comes with milk protein (that plant-based products have difficulty mimicking), while using fewer resources, like water and land.

Gandhi knows people are going to be confused, and possibly skeptical, at first. “We need to come up with new vocabulary for this field in general, because this isn’t plant-based. It’s also not animal-based,” he said during a panel at the Smart Kitchen Summit in Seattle on October 7. “It’s sort of its own third category.” While he’s hoping “flora-based” will catch on — and become widely adopted — the process could also be referred to as “fermentation-based.”

Another issue is that the Food and Drug Administration dictates what products can be called ice cream. The dairy industry has objected to plant-based varieties being called milk. Though Perfect Day said it would have products on the shelves within a year back in 2016, the rollout has been much slower — and expensive. Perfect Day provided its first proof-of-concept product with $20 pints of animal-free ice cream. To bring down the cost, the company plans to partner with other manufacturers to make other (more affordable) flora-based dairy products over the next couple of years.

Another startup, New Culture, is also attempting to make animal-free mozzarella through a similar process. Gandhi thinks these animal-free, fermented substitutes will play a role in feeding a growing population more sustainably, but to really make an impact, they can’t do it alone, he said.

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