Thursday, June 20, 2024

How New Culture Gets Microorganisms to Taste ‘Just Like Cheese’

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If the thought of giving up cheese seems untenable, this Bay Area food tech company is coming to the rescue with a sustainable solution made from microbes.

For many food producers working to create more sustainable options, it’s the holy grail. We’re talking about cheese, of course. From the artisanal to the ultra-processed, consumers want their cheese in any, or, more accurately, every form.

In the last fifty years, while fluid milk consumption has declined by more than 50 percent, according to the USDA, cheese consumption has increased threefold. And while the plant-based options have improved markedly in the last decade, it’s still a major hurdle for consumers wanting a cheese experience that rivals conventional. Enter New Culture: the pioneering animal-free dairy producer using precision fermentation to produce casein — the key ingredient in making cheese melt and stretch.

‘Any cheese is possible’

Precision fermentation is a 30-year-old technology, Matt Gibson, New Culture’s co-founder and CEO tells Ethos via email. He says the company has proven it can be applied in “new, revolutionary ways” — particularly when it comes to dairy proteins.

The technology involves growing dairy-identical casein (it’s also been used for whey and eggs, among other foods) with help from microorganisms in a process not all that different from brewing beer or making soy sauce.

New Culture's cheese pizza
New Culture’s cheese is indistinguishable from conventional | Courtesy

There are a number of benefits to the technology, chiefly the reduction in resources — including taking millions of animals out of the food supply. Cheesemaking requires the greatest amount of water of any food product, says Gibson, and it is the third worst food product for greenhouse gas emissions and land use behind beef and lamb.

But precision fermentation decreases the environmental impact significantly while delivering what is essentially a product indistinguishable from cheese made from cow’s milk.

According to Gibson, the tech is extremely versatile. “With our breakthrough ability to produce animal-free casein, the dairy world becomes our (vegan) oyster,” he says. “Any cheese is possible and can be made animal-free using our first-of-its-kind casein.”

For New Culture, that means expanding its presence in independent pizzerias and local and national chains. But the company is also developing a full portfolio of other cheese products to bring to retail. It even has plans to sell its casein to other manufacturers.

“Guided by our mission of leading the global change to an animal-free dairy future, the path forward will be marked by impact and opportunity, transformation and delicious dairy,” Gibson says.

The San Francisco-based company, which launched in 2018, has exponentially increased its production volumes and is now capable of producing cheese sufficient for 25,000 pizzas per batch. This move is instrumental in supplying pizzerias nationwide.

Pizzeria Mozza

New Culture’s cheese debuted in the restaurant market earlier this year with help from acclaimed James Beard chef Nancy Silverton. “When I tried New Culture cheese, I was surprised and excited by the integrity of the product and really felt it lived up to our standards,” the chef said in May. Her Los Angeles-based restaurant, Pizzeria Mozza, became the first to test the cheese.

Gibson told Ethos that this accomplishment marks a significant shift in the industry, illustrating the capability to manufacture considerable amounts of genuine cheese devoid of animal involvement. It embodies a fusion of ingenuity and sustainability, carving a path to a new sector with a far-reaching positive impact on environmental sustainability, animal welfare, and human health.

Chef Nancy Silverton
Chef Nancy Silverton was the first to debut the company’s cheese | Courtesy

“The reason why our cheese delivers on expectations is due to one magical ingredient: casein protein,” Gibson noted. New Culture is the first to harvest casein through precision fermentation, unlocking the formula that the company says could up-end the cheese category, turning it from one of the most environmentally damaging to one of the most sustainable.

“We are redefining category expectations for animal-free cheese,” Gibson says. “Despite widespread recognition that consumer tastes and values are shifting toward plant-based and flexitarianism, the existing vegan cheeses continuously disappoint consumers on taste and price. Our innovations are setting a new standard: we are crafting cheese that is finally able to deliver on consumer expectations, meet chefs’ high bar for performance, and produce at-scale efficiently — all without the harmful climate and environmental effects of conventional dairy,” he says.

According to Gibson, New Culture’s novel cheese not only facilitates cost reductions but also widens distribution opportunities, making its animal-free mozzarella more accessible.

Furthermore, the company says that within three years, the price of New Culture mozzarella will parallel that of its conventional counterparts — a milestone accompanied by an anticipated annual production equivalent to more than 14 million pizzas. This scale of production, reducing product costs by eighty percent, keeps the firm on track to meet its cost objectives, having already surpassed its core technical benchmarks for 2023.

New Culture at Pizzeria Mozza
New Culture at Pizzeria Mozza | Courtesy

New Culture is predicting a banner 2024 as it expands its food service operations, particularly more pizza shops.

“We have benefitted from hundreds of cheese and pizza tastings, which have consistently reinforced that New Culture cheese just ‘tastes like cheese’ and is far superior to the plant-based options available on the market,” Gibson says.

“It is the intersection of the climate crisis, consumer demand, and animal welfare where New Culture is transforming the $154 billion global pizza industry,” he says.

Gibson says consumers are increasingly demanding more sustainable and ethical choices in their diets, and healthier, cleaner options. “Our animal-free innovations are directly addressing these pressing challenges currently facing the food industry,” he says.

“We’re confident that once consumers try a pizza with our cheese they’ll have a hard time going back.”

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