Precision fermentation advances sustainable dairy

08 Jan 2024

How precision fermentation can advance sustainable dairy

A quiet revolution is happening behind the dairy aisle. Dairy farms are going high tech to achieve new levels of efficiency, plant-based alternatives are gaining market share, and now precision fermentation is enabling animal-free dairy products that look, taste and feel like the real thing. For food companies looking to meet the world’s growing demand for dairy more sustainably, precision fermentation looks increasingly like a critical piece of the puzzle. Realizing its promise will depend a lot on efficient industrial-scale production.

The dairy impact

The world loves dairy. With India the undisputed leader in milk production and consumption, the European Union and U.S. remain huge producers, consumers and exporters.[1, 2] China is the world’s largest dairy importer and per capita dairy consumption there continues to rise.[3] According to a June 2023 study, the value of the global dairy market is projected to grow by nearly 40 percent (to USD 1,243 billion) between 2022 and 2028.[4] The secret is in the milk itself – a nutrient-rich source of complete protein with taste and physical properties that lend itself to a wide variety of cherished foods and beverages. Dairy is also tradition-rich, nourishing us from our earliest days both physically and emotionally. In many ways, and in many parts of the world, it’s the ultimate comfort food. 

But while impressive advances in dairy farming have dramatically increased milk production per cow, we can’t expect these loyal animals to meet the ever-growing global demand for dairy. And the planet is telling us we shouldn’t try. The good news: A growing number of experts, food companies and investors believe that precision fermentation offers a way to combine the ethics and sustainability of plant-based milk with the unrivalled taste, texture and nutritional benefits of the ‘real thing’. 

New whey forward

One such company is ImaginDairy, a foodtech pioneer based in Haifa, Israel, and an early leader in the production of dairy proteins via precision fermentation. ImaginDairy is harnessing advanced computational biology and molecular biology technologies to supercharge precision fermentation and produce dairy proteins with new levels of efficiency and yield. Roni Zidon-Eyal, ImaginDairy’s Vice President of Business Development, breaks it down into language we can all understand. “Our mission is to deliver the protein source for great animal-free dairy products without compromising on the qualities of traditional dairy that we know and love,” she explains.

The company is off to a quick start. In 2020, it set out to replicate all six whey and casein proteins found in dairy milk, because conventional wisdom said that this entire complex of proteins was necessary to mimic the qualities of milk. But it soon found that a single whey protein, beta-lactoglobulin, could do the job itself. “Just using our precision fermented whey to provide the 3.4 percent protein found in dairy milk, we were able to make delicious milk, ice cream and cream cheese that tasted and behaved just like the real thing,” says Zidon-Eyal. The company was even able to make yogurt with a protein matrix consisting entirely of whey. For Zidon-Eyal, this illustrates one of the key advantages of using dairy over plant protein. “Because we’re using a real dairy protein, we don’t need extra stabilizers or ingredients to mask any flavors. Our yogurt has a total of four ingredients.” 


Yogurt (Image: ImaginDairy/Sarit Goffen)

Given the success they’ve had with their whey, ImaginDairy is focusing efforts on bringing this one dairy protein to market. “Many of us come from the food ingredient industry and understand that narrowing our focus is essential to being able to scale from a ‘cool biotech’ company to an actual trusted ingredients company,” says Zidon-Eyal. The approach seems to be working. In April 2023, Danone established a minority stake in the company, making ImaginDairy the first company in the Danone portfolio producing dairy proteins via fermentation.

"Because we’re using a real dairy protein, we don’t need extra stabilizers or ingredients to mask any flavors. Our yogurt has a total of four ingredients."

Roni Zidon-Eyal

Vice President of Business Development, ImaginDairy

Overcoming the scale-up challenge

As promising as this sounds, companies like ImaginDairy still face an uphill battle. Achieving cost parity with traditional dairy products requires continued innovation – both on the biotech side and the production side. While precision fermentation has demonstrated decades of success with the likes of insulin and rennet, these high-value products are produced in small amounts. Edible proteins, such as whey or casein, must be produced in much larger quantities. “Our microorganisms are very efficient, but to achieve the high volumes of protein required, we will also need extremely efficient industrial production processes,” explains Zidon-Eyal.

To help make this happen, the ImaginDairy team pays regular visits to GEA’s New Food Application and Technology Center of Excellence (ATC) in Hildesheim, Germany. The ATC features a cell cultivation and fermentation pilot line to help companies fast-track innovations from the lab to commercial-scale manufacturing. Dr. Antje Begerad, an engineer by training and today Deputy Head of Sales New Food at GEA, explains the heart of the matter when it comes to using precision fermentation to produce dairy proteins and other ingredients at scale. “Like cows, microorganisms need the right care in order to produce the desired end products. Their requirements are complex, and it is very challenging to accommodate these biological requirements in large machines within an industrial-scale production system. Sustaining a microorganism in a test tube is much easier than in a 500- or 200,000-liter fermenting vat.” 

Some key challenges to large-scale precision fermentation:

  • Conditions in the fermenter, such as temperature, pH, food and oxygen, must be continuously monitored and maintained – and each microorganism has its own special requirements. 
  • As cells metabolize, they release heat. If too much heat builds up in the fermenter, the cells or end products can be damaged.
  • Mixing the contents in a fermenter ensures a uniform distribution of conditions throughout the reactor, but this fluid flow can also damage the cells.
  • Maintaining sterile (aseptic) conditions is crucial. If there is contamination of any kind, an entire batch may need to be discarded, which is costly. 

At the ATC, GEA engineers use digital twins to simulate the mixing behavior of different solutions virtually. “Most importantly, the ATC allows companies to test directly in 50- and 500-liter bioreactors,” says Begerad. “So, in the end, they know whether their cells are happy in the system or not.”

For creating an end product like whey protein, fermentation is just one part of the process. There is also media preparation, sterilization, separation, homogenization, filtration and spray drying. “These are all areas where most companies do not have much experience,” says Begerad. “Following fermentation, each protein produced by the given organism needs to be treated a little differently as it makes its way through this process.” At the ATC, GEA can work with customers to figure out the right parameters for each system and optimize these settings to optimally suit their microorganism and end product. 

For producers across the alternative protein spectrum – from cultured meat to precision fermentation dairy proteins – scaling up production is indeed a core challenge. But Zidon-Eyal is careful to point out that working with GEA is not just about scale-up. “The beauty of the ATC is that we get such a close look into the production process itself – from start to finish,” she says. “We can experiment freely with various sizes of machinery and a range of variables. We can create different setups of industrial lines and experience first-hand how this impacts the end result. So, this isn’t just about scale-up, it’s about smart scale-up. We know that ultimately our success – and perhaps even the success of the industry – will depend on designing extremely efficient production processes for each specific end product.” 

"GEA can work with customers to figure out the right parameters for each system and optimize these settings to optimally suit their microorganism and end product."

Dr. Antje Begerad

Deputy Head of Sales New Food, GEA

Even as ImaginDairy begins producing at scale with contract manufacturing organizations (CMO), it is working with GEA to improve processes on the engineering side. “We want to design mega-lines for our products in the future. GEA and the ATC allow us to learn so much more about how to optimize the industrial process. So, when we’re ready for our own production, we can put the best possible line in place,” says Zidon-Eyal.

"The beauty of the application and technology center is that we get such a close look into the production process itself – from start to finish. This isn’t just about scale-up, it’s about smart scale-up."

Roni Zidon-Eyal

Vice President of Business Development, ImaginDairy

More options for more takers

Since the first animal-free dairy products made by precision fermentation went on sale in stores in 2020, the sector has grown and matured rapidly. According to the Good Food Institute, 62 companies were focused on precision fermentation for alternative protein as of 2022, with around 40 of these targeting dairy.[5] 

ImaginDairy and U.S.-based Perfect Day are among those focused on whey protein. Others, like Change Foods, have prioritized casein for animal-free cheese. Yali Bio is one company in the early stages of harnessing precision fermentation to make dairy fats. Some, like Bored Cow, are building their own product brands, while others are purely B2B. Some are startups, some are food giants like General Mills and Danone. There’s competition, of course, but Zidon-Eyal emphasizes the collaborative nature of their collective endeavor: “We want to bring about a massive change; there’s no one company that can do that alone.”

Nor is the goal to replace animal or plant-based dairy. Precision fermented dairy proteins can be used to make new “just the like the real thing” versions of milk, ice cream, cream cheese and yogurt, but they can also be used to enhance existing plant-based products. They can even be mixed with traditional dairy to help reduce its carbon footprint. 

For now, a central challenge is to get these microorganisms producing high enough yields to reliably supply food and beverage makers. Only then can quality and costs be balanced. And then consumers can start judging for themselves. “That’s our ultimate goal,” says Zidon-Eyal. “To give consumers more choice and get more consumers on board.” 

Ice cream

Ice cream (Image: ImaginDairy/Sarit Goffen)

The precision fermentation promise

The precision fermentation promise

Long before we knew microorganisms existed, humans have put them to work fermenting foods and beverages to preserve and enhance them. As our knowledge of microbiology and biochemistry has grown, we’ve learned to steer this natural process with ever-greater sophistication. Thanks to rapid advances in genetics, bioengineering and AI, today’s latest version of fermentation – known as precision fermentation – has advanced to the point where microorganisms can be harnessed like mini factories to produce a huge range of useful compounds. Best of all, these single-celled organisms can often do this much more efficiently and sustainably than the methods we’ve employed before.  By combining the wondrous talents (and work ethic) of microbes with modern science and technology, precision fermentation offers a very timely solution for us and our planet. 

(Image: Solar Foods)

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