‘Test and learn…’ General Mills expands access to Bold Cultr animal-free dairy cream cheese
Developed by General Mills’ corporate venture studio G-Works and first launched in a handful of Hy-Vee stores in Minnesota in late 2021, lactose-free Bold Cultr is one of a flurry of brands launched by CPG giants over the past couple of years to test the animal-free dairy concept.
Other examples include Cowabunga from Nestlé, CO2COA from Mars, and Nurishh from Bel Brands, with Unilever also planning a move into the space.
Bold Cultr originally used non-animal whey protein from California-based Perfect Day (which uses a fungi strain as its host microbe), but is now working with Israeli startup Remilk (which uses yeast as its host microbe for whey, and is manufacturing via toll processors before opening its own commercial scale precision fermentation facility in Denmark).
According to General Mills – which would not comment on why it switched suppliers - Bold Cultr will be available in "eight additional stores in the Twin Cities area, from Jan 30, including five Lunds & Byerlys locations and three Kowalski’s Markets locations.
“In early February, Bold Cultr will also relaunch a test-and-learn, direct-to-consumer website, allowing for national distribution - except for Alaska and Hawaii - of its three cream cheese flavors, including Plain, Strawberry, and Onion & Chive.”
As for the formula (see below), General Mills is "continuing to adjust the formulation based on consumer feedback."
Animal-free dairy: ‘This is a very new concept to consumers and even to the industry’
While some recent food tech innovations could be described as solutions in search of a problem, ‘animal-free’ dairy products enable consumers to have their cake and eat it too in the dairy alternative set, argues Bold Cultr co-founder Drake Ellingboe.
Speaking to us last year, Ellingboe said the proposition was clear (‘All of the taste, none of the compromise’) although the challenge – one companies in the so-called precision fermentation space have been wrestling with since day one - is how to describe animal products as they become de-coupled from animals, he acknowledged. How can animal proteins such as whey or collagen or egg albumin be ‘animal free’… and are they vegan?
The vegan question is not as simple as it sounds, first because the term ‘vegan’ is not legally defined in the US for food labeling purposes, and second, because not all vegans feel the same about it, said Ellingboe. To avoid any confusion, however, Bold Cultr has chosen not to use the term 'vegan' on pack for now, although it describes the brand “is a great option for vegans since no animals are involved in the production of our cream cheese” in the FAQ section of the website.
“This is a very new concept to consumers and even to the industry, so we decided to focus on three messages [on the front of the product label]: next gen, non-animal, and contains milk allergens. We found that there's a little fatigue with consumers when you talk about plant based, so we didn’t want to jump down that path, and we felt like next gen took us to a different place after talking with consumers in one-on-one interviews and through digital testing.”
INGREDIENTS: Water, Oil Blend (Palm Oil, Palm Kernel Oil), Pea Protein, Dextrose, Modified Corn Starch, Non-Animal Whey Protein (Contains Milk Allergens), Titanium Dioxide (For Color), Salt, Xanthan Gum, Calcium Potassium Phosphate Citrate, Natural Flavor, Guar Gum, Cultures.
The formulation – which currently contains palm oil (not considered the most sustainable or healthy choice of fats) and titanium dioxide (a whitening agent that’s approved as a color additive exempt from certification in the US, but has attracted more scrutiny lately after the European Food Safety Authority said it “can no longer be considered a safe additive”) – is a work in progress, he said.
However, clean label expectations vary by category and consumer, noted the company last year. “Our main goal is to deliver that real cheese experience without the animal.”
What is animal-free dairy?
There is no formal definition of ‘animal-free’ dairy – a term being tested by some startups in the space – but it typically refers to products made with ‘real’ dairy ingredients (whey, casein, etc.) that are produced without cows, either via genetically engineered microbes or genetically engineered crops such as soybeans, corn, or peas.
Using synthetic biology, firms in this space use DNA sequences like pieces of computer code to program or instruct plants or single celled organisms such as fungi and yeast to express animal proteins.
The final proteins do not contain any modified genetic material and are already familiar to the food industry (in its GRAS determination for its animal-free whey protein, which is expressed by a genetically engineered strain of the filamentous fungus Trichoderma, for example, Perfect Day notes that it is "identical to commercially available bovine-produced β-lactoglobulin”).
Making ‘real’ dairy cheese without cows, argue animal-free dairy proponents, offers the best of both worlds: more sustainable and ethical products that don’t involve industrialized animal agriculture, but still deliver the nutrition and functionality of ‘real’ dairy.
Cowabunga! Nestlé recently made its first foray into the 'animal-free' dairy space, with Cowabunga Animal-Free Dairy Beverages. Available in Chocolate and Original flavors, the lactose-free product - which is labeled as a 'beverage' rather than 'milk' - will be tested in six Safeway stores in the San Francisco Bay area.
The beverages - which are fortified with calcium and vitamin D and contain 14g and 250 calories protein per 15 floz bottle - are made with Perfect Day's non animal whey, oat concentrate, and high oleic sunflower oil.
Image credit: Perfect Day