Swapping animal-derived proteins with alternative protein sources has been a focus for a growing number of food scientists, manufacturers and consumers. In turn, the dairy alternatives market is projected to grow by more than 10% annually between 2022 and 2028, reaching a valuation of more US$31.5bn according to Facts and Factor.
And while plant-based dairy has been on the forefront of consumers’ minds when it comes to non-animal dairy products, precision-fermentation dairy has been gaining traction, too. The technology, which involves using microorganisms to express ingredients such as protein, can provide lab-grown dairy components that have the same nutritional quality and functionality to animal-derived ones, but without involving resource-intensive agriculture.
Whey and casein are the second largest segments in precision fermentation after enzymes. While whey is typically used in sports nutrition and food and beverage products, casein is highly sought-after by cheese manufacturers as it can provide superior stretching and melting properties to vegan cheese. If derived through precision fermentation, this protein could be used in the production of various types of dairy-free cheese that compares closely to the real thing.
Casein is the protein that Standing Ovation, a Paris-based start-up helmed by respected biotech scientist Frédéric Paques alongside Romain Chayot, specializes in. The company has completed pre-seed funding and Series A funding stages and has also managed to create cheese with its lab-grown caseins. “We have already produced cheese mimics that look and taste like cheese,” the start-up told us earlier this month. “Our proprietary casein production process has proved to scale easily and has been reproduced at pilot scale by third parties.”
One of the ‘third parties’ was the Bel Group, the cheese multi-national behind household brands like Laughing Cow, Boursin and Babybel. Bel has bought an equity stake in Standing Ovation and is set to use the start-up’s caseins in dairy-free cheese production. DairyReporter caught up with the company’s Caroline Sorlin, chief venture officer, and Anne Pitkowski, research and application director, to find out more.
‘Disruptive and successful’
“Precision fermentation is something we’ve been looking into for two years now, maybe even longer,” Sorlin opened. “We realized that we have a key role to play in how we address the key topic of preserving the planet’s resources while feeding a growing population which would reach 10bn by 2050. Based on that, we tried to identify technologies which would be the best ones for our application, and precision fermentation is one that we bet on. I think this is a technology which can be really disruptive and successful. We are fully convinced it can make a difference.”
Before partnering with Standing Ovation, Bel carried out a lengthy due-diligence process to pick the right start-up for the job. “We met a lot of companies – I would say between 10 and 15 start-ups - and from this, we retained Standing Ovation for their scientific advances but also because of how our two businesses complement each other,” Sorlin explained.
Pitkowski added: “What’s important to understand is that the category of proteins that is produced is so important. In cheese, caseins are crucial for our application as they give cheese its stretchability, meltability and other key properties. Standing Ovation has the capacity to produce that ingredient in a way that we could already experiment with production at lab-scale. We predict that we would be able to produce different types of cheeses with these caseins. Going forward, we will evaluate all cheese categories across our brands to see how the technology would fit in.”
Sorlin again: “The first generation of alternative dairy was plant-based. And you have lots of offerings today in these categories, including Bel’s. But what you can also observe is that with only raw plant-based materials it’s super hard to reach the same level of nutrition - and for cheese, it’s even more difficult to reach the same level of texture and functionality.”
Mixing things up
Of course, precision fermentation and plant-based food innovation aren’t the only segments Bel is investing in. The company recently partnered with Superbrewed Food to use the start-up’s postbiotic cultured protein, which contains all essential amino acids, six key minerals and five B-vitamins. Together with Standing Ovation’s caseins, Bel could formulate more nutrient-dense products - by mixing animal-free milk and plant proteins, for example.
“The idea would be to mix,” nodded Sorlin, “so putting casein in plant-based products to increase the nutritional value of existing offerings.
“We want to be as open as we can and test as many different things as possible, even mixing some technologies, because at the end of the day, the most important thing is to be able to put out tasty products with the right level of nutrients.”
While Bel and Standing Ovation are at the early stages of R&D, Pitkowski told us the companies were collaborating on products ‘even before we had signed the contract’. “We felt there was great chemistry between the teams,” she said. “The way we work, we [Bel] characterize the protein - its functions, solubility and stability – and then we work to prepare cheese with the caseins. When we met their team, they had already started to produce cheese – in fact, we had a taste!”
Bel is set to apply to US and European regulators ‘in the coming months’, with the first products hoped to arrive in 2024 – first in the US, then in Europe pending regulatory approval. The multi-national will focus on cheese production while ‘supporting’ Standing Ovation as the start-up continues to scale-up its casein production.
“It’s an impressive fit what we have between our team and that of Standing Ovation, so there’s excitement from both sides on working together,” Sorlin explained. “We expect to move as fast as we can and we can’t wait to have our first products on shelves.”
Educating the consumer
Besides gaining regulatory approvals, consumer perceptions is another area that manufacturers need to tackle if precision fermentation dairy is to success on a commercial scale. Bel is prepared to shoulder this responsibility, we were told. “We need to explain the benefits of these technologies to the consumer,” said Sorlin. “That’s why it’s good to have more partnerships between start-ups and big Groups such as Bel because we know consumers and we can help with educating them.”
Whether shoppers are open to precision-fermentation dairy is also generation-dependent, according to Bel. “What we’ve discovered is that there is a big shift among generations,” Sorlin said. “For kids today, their key priority is definitely the planet. If explain to them that the ingredient we are using for our cheese is good for the planet, then I have no doubt that things will work out.
“We just need to find the right way to explain to consumers that what we are doing – using science – is for the sake of producing a better product that is also good for the planet,” she concluded.