In recent years going vegan, or plant-based, has transformed from an expensive and inaccessible health trend into a common diet for millions. Americans are increasingly eating once hard-to-find vegan options, like Beyond Burger patties.
But, while plant-based meats have pleased customers with animal-like texture and taste, plant-based dairy alternatives still leave much to be desired. They may taste fine, but they just don't taste the same.
Perfect Day, an acellular agriculture company fueled by its two founders' desire for a good vegan cream cheese, aims to fix that problem. It has a plan to create a dairy product that's genetically indistinguishable from the real thing — all without ever touching a cow.
Founded in 2014, Perfect Day closed its largest funding round yet earlier this month with $300 million raised in its Series C funding. Adding to the company's previously raised $61.5 million, the vegan company's total funding is now over $360 million. New funding aside, the team already reported in December 2019 it was able to double its manufacturing capacity.
A vegan diet from many perspectives — The two approaches to veganism that are most commonplace are eating a plant-based diet or eating lab-grown meat. Perfect Day, however, relies on a third approach: acellular agriculture.
As its name suggests, a plant-based diet means only consuming products derived from non-animal sources. Any animal product, from butter and dairy to meat, is strictly off the (physical and metaphorical) table. Classic animal-free swaps on this diet might look like using coconut oil instead of butter, oat milk instead of dairy milk, and eating more plant-based proteins like lentils or tempeh instead of animal proteins like steak.
Lab-grown meat, meanwhile, is a result of a method called cellular agriculture. This is when living cells are harvested from a living animal through biopsies and used to create animal products without actually harming any animals. Memphis Meats, a cellular agriculture company that promises "real meat" with "no comprises," is a leader in this space.
However, this claim of "no compromises" is easier said than lived for many vegans who still feel conflicted about the animal involvement in cellular agriculture products.
A potential solution to this ethical conundrum is our third option: acellular agriculture.
What is acellular agriculture — Like cellular agriculture, acellular agriculture is a lab-based approach to creating animal-like products without actually harming any animals. But unlike cellular agriculture, which does use animal cells to jump-start its process, acellular agriculture leans on microorganisms to get the job done instead.
Perfect Day uses microflora to produce its animal-like dairy proteins. Named Trichoderma, this microflora is fungi that are present in soils and other diverse habitats. It is particularly good at making protein and, kind of like a stem cell, can be programmed to make any type of protein it's given the instructions for. In the case of dairy, it's fed the DNA instructions for casein and whey proteins — dairy's big hitters.
Nicki Briggs, Perfect Day's VP of Corporate Communications, tells Inverse that this process is distinctly different from what plant-based dairy alternatives might do.
"Instead of trying to make a plant protein do something that it just will never do, we're harnessing a process that doesn't involve cows at all to make identical proteins to what cows produce," Briggs says.
Using a fermentation process, the microflora can create these dairy proteins in mass. The proteins created by their microflora are genetically identical to those created by real dairy cows. Because of this, Perfect Day's dairy proteins can be used 1-for-1 in dairy products like cream cheese or ice cream without sacrificing any taste, flavor, or texture, according to Briggs.
"We're harnessing a process that doesn't involve cows at all to make identical proteins to what cows produce."
"We're using these proteins that were produced during fermentation [to get] the same complex structures in food," Briggs says. "You have ice cream that has the same creamy mouthfeel as cow-based ice cream ... or really anything we'd want to make in dairy."
What are the benefits — Taste aside, there are also environmental benefits to producing dairy protein this way that could give plant-based alternatives, like soy, almond or oat milk, a run for their money, Briggs says.
"There's lots of data around the environmental inputs [for] popular products like almond or oat milk and what they require in terms of energy, but we don't have those [needs]," Briggs says. "We don't need to grow giant crops of almonds to keep up with demand, we can use really efficient processes around fermentation."
The company is still in the process of quantifying exactly what its environmental impact is. Still, Perfect Day is fairly optimistic given the fact that they utilize existing systems like fermentation, Briggs explains.
And because their product creates a genetically identical dairy protein but not the full milk product itself, Briggs says that Perfect Day has more control over making the final product lactose, hormone, anti-biotics free.
[While the Perfect Day website notes that "flora-made protein does not contain GMOs" a spokesperson tells Inverse that because the microflora used to create the protein is genetically modified, technically their product is not GMO-free. There are no GMOs present in the final product.]
How to try it yourself — During the summer of 2019, Perfect Day released its own limited-edition line of ice cream with flavors like "Milky Chocolate," "Vanilla Salted Fudge," and "Vanilla Blackberry Toffee." The line sold out in a single day.
The company recently partnered with ice cream companies Smitten and Brave Robot to sell these flora-based dairy creations across the country. That's just the beginning of Perfect Day's plans, Briggs says.
"We think [this funding round] is a marker of the next chapter for our company," says Briggs. "We spent so long developing a process and being able to make this really special flora-made protein, so the next step is actually bringing it to the world."
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on July 30. Perfect Day has raised over $360 million, not $350 million. This article previously stated the microflora used was a bacteria, instead, it is part of a genus of fungi.