Wired has a profile of "Real Vegan Cheese", a product emerging from Counter Culture Labs in Oakland, California. The DIY/biotech lab is using genetically modified yeast cells to produce 11 proteins normally found in cow's milk, which can then be used to create synthetic cheese.
The genetic engineering approach to cheese has been enabled by the rapidly falling cost of DNA synthesis. It now costs less than $0.25 per base pair to obtain a custom DNA sequence which can be delivered by mail. Why make vegan cheese using yeast? Cheesemaking is an artisanal process with centuries of history and one of the earliest examples of human-directed microbiology. Existing plant-based vegan cheeses can't reproduce the casein proteins needed to achieve a passable cheese. However, Real Vegan Cheese will not use animal fat or lactose.
The process is not limited to bovine cheese:
When I visit the lab, I discover the cheese team includes a biologist, a bioethicist, a retired clinical psychologist, an accountant, and a former Apple marketer. "This to me is a natural extension of computer culture," says Maria Chavez, the ex-Apple employee and a leader of the vegan cheese project. "What is bigger to hack than our bodies and our environment? It's one of the last big frontiers. The possibilities are exciting."
The possibilities include not just vegan cow cheese, but, well, vegan human cheese. The same basic process for synthesizing cow's milk applies to milk from any other mammal. You just need different genes. Cheese made from engineered human breast milk may not sound like a top seller at the deli counter. But the team says it can serve a practical purpose: Human milk cheese could offer an option to people who have allergies to non-human dairy products. (Chavez said the group has put its experiments with human milk on hold due to Food and Drug Administration concerns about possible autoimmune reactions.)
The team is also attempting to create a narwhal cheese, after achieving the stretch goal on Indiegogo. The recipe and experiments involved will be released as "open source"; the DNA sequence(s) will be submitted to iGEM's Registry of Standard Biological Parts.
Critics of synthetic foods worry about the use of GMOs and the lightly regulated nature of biotechnology labs and hackerspaces. The Real Vegan Cheese team notes that the cheese itself isn't a GMO, only the yeast is. Other recent forays into synthetic food include Muufri's synthetic milk, and Evolva's vanilla/vanillin and saffron substitutes.
(Score: 3, Informative) by jdccdevel on Friday April 17 2015, @02:50PM
Some people with Milk Casein allergies eat Vegan "Cheese" because they can't eat regular cheese at all. (Lactose Free isn't good enough, since it's a allergy to milk protein not the lactose.)
The Vegan label is really helpful to people with milk protein allergies, not just those who decide to follow a particular diet.
Although I like the possibility of making cheese from other kinds of milk, I hope they label their "Vegan Milk Cheese" as containing synthetic milk protein, so that people with allergies don't see the Vegan label and think it's safe to eat. That mistake could be deadly.
The same goes with other "Vegan" products. Right now, I can be fairly certain that anything labelled Vegan is safe for my son (with milk and egg allergies) to eat, Vegan margarine is safe for example (vs other margarine that usually contains Whey Powder). If they decide to use this synthetic milk protein in other products, while allowing them to keep the "Vegan" label, the usefulness of the Vegan label as a allergy indicator could disappear completely.
People with milk protein alergies have a hard enough time finding substitutes for things like cheese, margarine, and ice-cream. It's crazy how many things they put whey powder in (even sorbet, wtf!).
I really hope any products using this are required to indicate they contain Synthetic Milk in some obvious location, because otherwise someone is going to have a severe reaction to a food they thought was safe.
(Score: 3, Insightful) by danmars on Friday April 17 2015, @04:16PM
When I read this I immediately had similar thoughts. If we see a world where foods are built from unconventional proteins, they'd better tell you exactly which proteins, or everyone with allergies which aren't on warning labels (i.e. any allergy other than milk, eggs, soy, nuts, or peanuts) is going to be at a high risk of death.
(Score: 2) by captain normal on Friday April 17 2015, @08:49PM
There is now, on the selves of most food stores in the US, a cheese made from soy milk. This is considered "vegan" and is also used by people allergic to milk.
"It is easier to fool someone than it is to convince them that they have been fooled" Mark Twain
(Score: 2) by jdccdevel on Sunday April 19 2015, @03:52AM
I am aware of the cheese alternatives currently available. Some use Soy, others use vegetable oil, all of them are labelled "Vegan".
People with Milk Protein allergies use that Vegan label to tell if a particular type of "cheese" they're buying is safe for them to eat.
The point is, if this company is allowed to use the "Vegan" label on cheese made with this synthetic milk, someone with allergies is going to buy it and assume it's safe, when it's not. (The small variety of "Vegan Cheese" available makes that inevitable.)
In that case, someone is probably going to die from eating something they thought was safe.
That's why I hope they're required to label their cheese as "Synthetic Milk Cheese", or similar. They need to require that any product containing this Indicates clearly that the product contains synthetic milk protein.
If they don't then the value of the "Vegan" label as a food safety indicator for people with allergies becomes Nil. Which would make finding safe foods even harder than it already is.
(Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 18 2015, @03:49PM
There are far better ways of getting protein and calcium. Eating sardines for instance.