What is lab milk? And who is it suitable for? We answer some of the big questions around this emerging form of animal-free dairy.
There are plenty of nut and plant-based milks on the market. Milks made from almonds, soy, coconut, and hemp (and many more.) Yes, they’re great alternatives to cows’ milk for vegans, people with lactose intolerance or dairy allergies, but let’s be honest, they’re not direct substitutes for dairy. The tastes, textures, consistencies and nutritional contents of dairy-free products can be very different. This is due to the absence of two proteins – casein and whey.
However, thanks to the wonder of science, there are now companies concocting these two missing dairy proteins synthetically in the lab. This is leading to animal-free dairy products that are a much closer match to those made with cows’ milk.
What is lab milk?
Lab milk closely resembles cows’ milk in nutritional composition and taste, but it’s made with zero involvement from any animal. Instead, the dairy proteins that are so important to taste and texture, are synthetically made in a laboratory far from any fields of grazing herd.
How do you make dairy proteins without cows?
You’re probably curious about what’s in lab milk. And the production process involved. This is down to a combination of science and fermentation.
Let’s think about the cows’ milk we pour over our cereal. To create the taste and creamy texture, we rely on animals to eat plants and turn them into proteins. This gives dairy products their unique flavour and nutritional characteristics. To replicate this process in a laboratory, a modified yeast is used to convert plant sugar into whey and casein. These are the same proteins that are in cows’ milk.
The 4 basic elements of making lab milk
- Start with genetically modified yeast. Adding the essential DNA of cows’ milk to yeast enables it to produce the two dairy proteins.
- Scientists feed sugar to the yeast and the magic of fermentation creates a huge amount of whey and casein proteins.
- Extraction and filtering. Separating the lab-grown protein from the yeast and any lingering sugar, leaves a protein powder.
- Add the extra nutrition. Mixing water, vitamins, minerals, and plant-based fats and sugars with the lab-grown protein powder gives lab milk the same nutritional composition as the cow variety.
Is lab milk good for you?
It’s important to note that lab milk is not yet in mass production. As a result, there’s still a lot to learn and specific nutrient information isn’t widely available. For example, some of the plant-based fats and sugars could turn out to be problematic for some.
However, the ambition is for lab milk to be nutritionally identical to animal-derived dairy. This creates a milk alternative that supplies more nutrients than existing nut and plant-based versions.
Is lab milk lactose free?
Lactose is a type of sugar in milk and dairy products. People who are lactose intolerant find it difficult to digest the lactose in dairy products, leading to various uncomfortable symptoms. The good news for those avoiding dairy products is that lab milk uses plant sugars instead of lactose. So, lab milk could be suitable for people with this type of dairy intolerance.
However, a note of caution if you have a dairy allergy. Since the man-made proteins in lab milk share many characteristics of cows’ milk proteins, you could still experience an allergic reaction.
Is lab milk vegan?
There is no input from animals in the production of lab milk, making it suitable for vegans. The lab-based manufacturing process also offers a number of environmental and ethical benefits compared to animal-derived dairy. So, as well as satisfying any concerns for animal welfare, the production processes are also more sustainable. For example, the carbon footprint of manufacturing and the amount of pollution created are far smaller.
What are the pros and cons?
- Closely resembles the flavour and texture of cows’ milk (compared to nut and plant-based milks)
- Similar nutritional profile to cows’ milk
- It’s vegan friendly
- Suitable for those with lactose intolerance
- The manufacturing process has environmental and ethical benefits over dairy production
- It’s not yet in mass production
- The exact nutritional profile is unknown
- It may not be suitable for people with dairy allergies
- The plant sugars and fats used could have drawbacks
- The price-point is unknown
Is it the future?
The real impact of lab milk is an unknown for now. There’s a lot still to learn and understand about this new alternative to animal-derived dairy. But as a vegan, lactose-free product, with a similar taste and nutritional composition to cows’ milk, it definitely brings an interesting new alternative to the ever-expanding milk market.
Last updated: 18 August 2020