From recombinant proteins to clean-label formulations: Patent filings and product innovation in cheese alternatives

By Teodora Lyubomirova

- Last updated on GMT

That melt: Replicating the stretch and flavor of dairy cheese remains a challenge for plant-based cheesemakers, but work to improve functionality continues. Image: Getty/simonkr
That melt: Replicating the stretch and flavor of dairy cheese remains a challenge for plant-based cheesemakers, but work to improve functionality continues. Image: Getty/simonkr

Related tags Dairy plant-based Cheese Dairy alternatives Sustainability vegan precision fermentation Casein

DairyReporter chats with Emily Nytko-Lutz of intellectual property law firm Reddie & Grose to discuss the latest patent filings by non-dairy cheese companies and what product makers should focus on to elevate functionality and clean up product labels.

Nytko-Lutz completed a PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Inorganic Chemistry that focused on the development of frustrated magnetic materials, and also holds a BA in Chemistry from Dartmouth College. She has worked at a multinational medical device company and as a patent examiner at the US PTO. Prior to joining her current company, Nytko-Lutz worked at another London, UK-based IP firm.

DR: Consumers are increasingly looking for alternatives to dairy, meat, that aren’t ultra processed or that use simple ingredients and processes. How can alt dairy manufacturers keep their labels clean while achieving good functional and sensory properties in plant-based cheeses? What are the challenges that plant-based cheese manufacturers should be looking to address?

Plant-based cheeses contain a network of starch, protein or a combination of both, with embedded fats and water. Most plant-based cheeses on the market are produced by a process in which functional ingredients are isolated from different sources, processed, combined to form an emulsion, and solidified. Plant-based cheeses made from such processes often contain little to no protein and ingredients which include functional additives - thickeners, stabilizers or gelling agents - so that the cheeses hold their shape at room temperature. These can include modified starches, alginate, carrageenan, guar gum, agar and xanthan gum. Additionally, plant-based cheeses frequently contain ingredients such as ‘natural flavourings’ and  ‘colour’. Many of these ingredients prevent producers of such cheeses from marketing them as clean-label products.

Other non-dairy cheeses are made from whole plant-based raw materials. Such cheeses may be soy- or nut-based; frequently, cashew nuts are used to produce them. These cheeses typically contain more protein - although only about half the protein content of dairy-based cheeses such as cheddar - and are more frequently made with clean labels. 

Casein is a key protein structural component of dairy cheese that is responsible for its texture and melting behaviour. It is absent from plant-based cheese. Although plant-based cheeses may hold their shape at room temperature, the functional additives used to date in plant-based cheeses have not been able to replicate the 3D structure provided by casein in dairy cheese when they are heated, such that plant-based cheeses melt with little stretch and a lot of free oil formation, or worse still, they don’t melt at all.

Forming a meltable, stretchable plant-based cheese has thus been a hitherto unmet technological challenge, and in my view the major challenge that plant based cheese manufacturers are trying to address. Fortunately, there is a lot of exciting innovation in the pipeline around using casein and functional analogs to casein to produce plant-based cheeses that melt and stretch without using some of the aforementioned non-clean label ingredients.

"A number of innovative companies are seeking to produce casein without using dairy milk, and some are even using this casein to produce meltable, stretchable non-dairy cheeses. There are also companies that are seeking to replicate the functional performance of casein in cheese with other plant-based proteins." 

DR: How has technology aided plant-based cheese innovation? What are some aspects which can be improved with regards to processing technology?

Recombinant DNA technologies and genetic engineering have now made it possible to produce proteins such as casein using plants, bacteria and fungi. Precision fermentation in particular combines powerful tools such as artificial intelligence and machine learning with fermentation in order to harvest the genetic power of fungi and bacteria to work as factories to produce target proteins at the highest possible yield in the shortest possible time.

Producing plant-based cheeses using similar processes to those used to make dairy cheeses would be ideal, but this is usually impractical because plant-based ingredients behave differently from components in dairy milk.

Some of the processing technology, particularly processes in which various functional ingredients are isolated from different sources before being combined are not as energy efficient as they could be. Producing protein from precision fermentation processes has the potential to cut down on these inefficiencies by providing protein that can impart structure to non-dairy cheese, reducing or eliminating the need for such additives.

DR: What opportunities are there for manufacturers looking at leveraging precision fermentation in dairy-free cheese manufacturing? 

Consumers want convincing plant-based alternatives to dairy cheese that melt and stretch, to achieve the same sensory impact as dairy cheese, and start-ups working in this area have the potential to change the landscape. For instance, the Bay-area-based start-up New Culture, which has produced a meltable, stretchable vegan mozzarella​ using recombinant casein, received a round of funding in late 2022 from multi-national Korean conglomerate CJCheilJedang, which owns a 25% stake in the US frozen pizza market. New Culture is seeking clearance from the US Food and Drug Administration for its mozzarella, with plans to launch in the food service industry in the Bay area in early 2024, before expanding to a wider market. Dutch-based start-up Fooditive is seeking clearance for its vegan casein by the European Food Standards Agency, and is looking to partner with other companies to bring its technology to non-dairy cheese.

DR: What are the latest patent filings with regards to plant-based cheese R&D and what do they mean for product innovation?

There are a number of exciting patent applications by companies seeking to produce meltable, stretchable non-dairy cheese that have recently been published. Keep in mind that patent applications are not published until 18 months after they are first filed, however, so it is possible that there are applications in this space that we are not yet seeing.

"There are a few main areas in which companies are innovating: there are those companies making recombinant casein using precision fermentation processes or transgenic plants, and those that are seeking to produce plant-based analogs to casein."

New Culture, which I’ve mentioned above, has three published families of patent applications, with priority dates as early as 2019. The applications are directed to recombinant casein compositions and cheese produced from them. According to their descriptions, the recombinant casein is produced from genetically-modified bacteria by precision fermentation. Change Foods [animal-free dairy foods company, ed.] has one published family directed to recombinant casein compositions produced by bacteria and lipids produced by yeast – these compositions can be made into cheese. Perfect Day has eight published patent application families mentioning recombinant casein produced from genetically modified fungal cells with priority dates as early as 2015. Nobell Foods and related company Alpine Roads, Inc. have at least five published patent application families detailing technology applicable to recombinant casein proteins produced by transgenic soybean plants.

"Recombinant caseins are interesting because once you have a protein as close as possible to dairy casein the hardest part of making a meltable, stretchable plant-based cheese is over, and you can use many existing cheesemaking processes."

Some consumers prefer or have reason to avoid consuming casein, such as food allergy or intolerance. For these consumers, there are innovative companies seeking to produce meltable, stretchable non-dairy cheeses, without the casein. One such start-up is Boston-based Motif Foodworks. Motif utilizes prolamin technology – prolamins are proteins from cereal grains – using the protein zein, from corn, to produce meltable, stretchable vegan cheese. Motif has obtained rights related to at least one patent application in this area from the University of Guelph in Canada.

Another company is Climax Foods​, which is using data science and artificial intelligence to uncover plant proteins that mimic the functional performance of animal proteins, such as casein. It calls its AI process ‘precision formulation’, which involves training AI-based on desired attributes in food to optimise ingredients and processes used to formulate plant-based foods. It claims to have found the first ever seed-based protein to functionally mimic the melting and stretching of casein. Climax Foods has at least five published patent application families related to using precision formulation to produce plant-based alternatives to dairy.

DR: Plant-based dairy still has its ‘health halo’ and consumers still choose these products for their health benefits. What are some trends in plant-based dairy – whether to do with fortification, clean labelling or innovative manufacturing methods – that can support health claims?

Historically, many plant-based cheeses have been high in saturated fats, as they have been made with coconut oil and palm oil, and they are not protein-rich foods. Fortifying plant-based cheeses with protein can improve their nutritional value. Dairy cheese is also rich in micronutrients such as calcium and vitamins A and B12, and there is a move to fortify non-dairy cheese with these nutrients as well. As I mentioned above,

when non-dairy cheeses are produced by a process in which functional ingredients are isolated from different sources, processed, combined to form an emulsion, and solidified, their labels are not clean.

Plant-based dairy in which more structure is imparted by proteins have the potential to be cleaner label products, as the need for many functional additives may be reduced or eliminated.

DR: What developments are you looking forward to in 2024 with respect to plant-based cheese?

Above I’ve mentioned that several companies are seeking regulatory clearance to bring innovative casein and plant-based cheeses to market. As a consumer of plant-based cheeses, I’m hoping that the innovative casein and plant-based cheeses will be brought to market soon.

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