After going vegan for two decades, Pat Brown didn’t miss burgers. This wasn’t because he lost his taste for them. It was because Brown, 65, a former food scientist, had founded a company to figure out how to replicate ground beef using nothing but plants. The result, the Impossible Burger, was widely hailed as a game-changer, especially in its upgraded 2019 form. The Impossible Whopper was such a hit at Burger King when it launched last summer that an estimated 90 percent of sales came from meat eaters. Consider burgers solved.
So what non-vegan foodstuff does Brown still miss? He doesn’t hesitate for a second. “Pizza cheese,” the Impossible Foods CEO says. He then reels off some cheesy statistics: More of the U.S. dairy industry’s output — 24 billion gallons of milk a year — goes towards making cheese than any other product, including milk. The vast majority of that cheese is mozzarella (the base of most pizza cheese), cheddar, and the processed cheddar known as American. All of which seems, in cheese terms, pretty basic.
If those cheeses were easy to replicate, a good chunk of the growing cheese market — which is projected to climb from $32 billion to $40.5 billion in sales by 2025, in the U.S. alone — would be on the table. Impossible cheese “would be super disruptive,” Brown enthuses, and right in line with Impossible’s mission to massively reduce the need for cattle and take a giant chunk out of climate change in the process. “More importantly,” he says, “it would fill this gap in my life” — the vegan pizza cheese gap.
But no. Despite a ton of R&D — flush with VC cash, the company is in the process of doubling its research team from 60 to 120 people this year — Impossible cheese is not up to the Impossible burger standard yet. Brown tactfully calls it “doable” and an “ongoing goal.” For 2020, the company decided to focus on Impossible pork instead, opening up a vast Asian and European market that enjoys pig products even more than beef.
So what’s the hold-up when it comes to plant-based cheese?
After all, we’re pretty much there when it comes to plant-based milk replacing the real thing, as I discovered when I conducted an exhaustive latte-making experiment. Since then I’ve been exclusively using the various oat milk brands (together with a little of the pea protein brand, Ripple) which won that contest. Indeed, I’m ready to pronounce myself cured of the desire for cow milk.
But you can’t find oat milk-based cheeses yet, at least not in American supermarkets. Oatly, the original oat milk brand, sells a cream cheese-like “oat spread” in Scandinavian countries, but hasn’t seen fit to launch it elsewhere yet. Which suggests that what works for lattes and cereal may not work when it comes to bagel schmears, let alone sliced, shredded and good old-fashioned blocks.
Nut and soy-based cheese, meanwhile, is increasingly popular with the vegan community. Sales of these fake cheeses shot up in the U.S. from $125 million in 2017 to $189 million last year: a drop in the $32 billion cheese bucket, but they’re growing faster than the market as a whole.
Europe is experimenting and iterating more rapidly than the U.S., which makes sense given that it’s the only part of the world that produces more cheese. This year has seen the first Plant Powered Expo, a trade show for alternative foods; it offered a wild and wide variety of novel fake cheese, including coconut oil-based “sheese.” The continent’s first dedicated non-dairy cheesemongers, La Fauxmagerie, opened in London last year, and the country’s dairy trade group was worried enough to threaten legal action.
But while vegans may love some of this stuff, it isn’t really catching on with flexitarians — those of us who would like to shed meat and dairy as much as possible but aren’t sticking to a restrictive diet. Even La Fauxmagerie’s owners admit that “vegan cheese is still at a nascent stage,” singling out cheddar in particular as a flavor and texture that is hard to get right.
Not even basic plant-based cream cheese seems to hit the mark, at least not for those of us who remember clearly what the original tastes like. For the past two weeks I’ve switched to two of the most highly-rated vegan cheese spreads in the U.S., Kite Hill’s almond cheese and Miyoko’s cashew-based product. They were certainly edible, but I found the texture of Kite Hill a little too thin and Miyoko a little too thick. Neither had that distinct tangy taste we associate with true cheese.
Casein on the brain
And therein lies the problem. Cheese’s taste and texture comes from the coagulation of casein, a family of proteins that make up 80 percent of the protein in cow’s milk. (It’s even higher in milk from other mammals, such as sheep.) Casein has been found to have opiate-like qualities in the brain; the protein binds to the same receptors as morphine, heroin and the whole opioid family.
So in essence, any company like Impossible that wants to fully replace cheese is going to have to invent a kind of methadone. That’s not outside the realms of possibility. A Silicon Valley startup called New Culture claims to have solved the casein problem. In the lab, they’ve made bacteria and fungi pump out casein through a fermentation process, and appear to have produced something very much like mozzarella — making Pat Brown’s pizza cheese dream a reality.
The only trouble is, the company may not be able to ramp up that fermentation process to the scale required by a hungry cheese market. New Culture’s founders say they’re looking at three or four years, at least, before their product hits shelves. The 2020s may yet be the decade that we replace the dairy cow as our main source of cheese, but for now that dream remains — to Brown’s chagrin — pretty much impossible.
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