Comté. Piacentinu. Burrata. Clothbound Cheddar. The world of gourmet cheese is vast, representing culture, traditions, history, and terroir.
For some, indulging in gourmet cheeses may be considered a guilty pleasure due to its price point or the fact that it is high in fat and calories. The less obvious reason cheese may be a guilty pleasure is the guilt associated with this beloved food’s environmental impact.
Cheese quietly hides behind beef, lamb, and prawns, but shocker – cheese has the fourth largest carbon footprint out of all foods. The same environmental concerns associated with beef and milk exist for cheese, such as high land and water use, water pollution, deforestation, desertification, and disruption of local ecosystems.
Plant-based cheese does exist and comes with a much lower carbon footprint. After being vegan for 8 years, I can confidently say I’ve eaten a lot of vegan cheese. I am confident that none are as good as gourmet cheese made from animal milk. Sure, there are some plant-based cheddar and mozzarellas that are nearly equal, but I found nothing that compares to the complexity of Brie or Manchego.
What is it that plant-based cheese lacks? For some, it is the depth of flavor or level of fattiness. Consider the unique flavors you find in gourmet cheeses; leathery, oaky, grassy, and even meaty. Many alternative kinds of cheese also don’t provide the melt and stretch found in animal-based cheeses like Oaxaca cheese and Gruyère.
There is a solution in the works for cheese consumers that experience climate guilt (who also aren’t fans of vegan options). Surprisingly, the solution for the future of gourmet cheese is actually a technology called precision fermentation that was developed in the 1980s.
Precision fermentation involves manipulating microorganisms (like yeast), modifying their genetic code to produce a desired compound, and cultivating it in a bioreactor under controlled conditions. The final step is harvesting and purifying the final product for commercial use. In simple terms, the process is quite similar to beermaking.
The first commercial product precision fermentation was used for was the development of human insulin. Since then, it has been used to create food flavorings, natural colors, enzymes, fragrances, and other pharmaceuticals.
More recently, this technology has come into the spotlight for its use in creating bioidentical animal-free dairy. Several companies like Change Foods, Formo, and Better Dairy are focused specifically on using precision fermentation technology to create animal-free cheeses.
These companies modify microorganisms (like yeast) to create real dairy proteins, fats, and flavors, but without the use of any animals. Then, traditional cheesemaking techniques are used to turn the precision fermentation components into cheese that tastes, stretches, and melts, just like animal-based cheeses. The final product is identical to your favorite animal milk cheese but without the environmental impact.
While we can’t yet buy a burrata made from the bioidentical, animal-free dairy at our local grocery store, these food technology companies are quickly making steps in that direction. Last year, Change Foods signed a pre-development agreement with Abu Dhabi Ports in the United Arab Emirates to build a 1.2 million-liter fermentation facility that has the potential to produce the equivalent of 10,000 cows. Formo Foods plans on making its alternative cheese available in 2023, so keep your eye on their social media if you want to be one of the first in the world to try precision fermentation cheese.
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