These days, eaters have access to many traditional dairy alternatives, including nut or grain-based milk, cheese and frozen desserts. Since their advent as a niche product, dairy alternatives have comfortably crossed over into the mainstream. Now they're being joined by newer, animal-free dairy products made through a process called "precision fermentation" — and animal-free dairy is a different creature altogether.
Precision fermentation is a biotechnology technique in which GMOs are engineered to create novel compounds, in this case dairy-identical proteins. The proteins are then extracted and mixed with a variety of additives and fashioned into animal-free milk, ice cream, cream cheese spread and more.
However, animal-free dairy, made with GMOs isn't necessarily interchangeable with the nut and grain-based dairy alternatives that have been around for ages. Here's what you need to know to choose the right product.
"Precision fermentation" and GMOs
The term "precision fermentation" is unfamiliar to most people. That is part of its appeal to the biotech industry. Because the public has largely rejected GMOs in the food system, introducing new terms is a strategic marketing decision (think, bioengineered or NGT). Other illusive terms include “animal-free whey protein” and “whey protein from fermentation.” Some brands even exaggerate the distance, making misleading non-GMO claims about products made with biotechnology.
In reality, precision fermentation is a biotechnology technique that uses genetically modified microorganisms such as GMO yeast or algae to produce dairy proteins through fermentation. The Non-GMO Project Standard considers this technique synthetic biology, and ingredients and products made through synbio techniques are prohibited.
To further complicate things, some brands offering precision fermentation products also show up in natural foods spaces, including Natural Products Expo West — a highly controversial addition. The Non-GMO Project's stance is clear: GMOs are not natural, and products made with them do not belong in the natural products space.
Animal-free ≠ vegan
Vegans, vegetarians and people with food sensitivities may opt for natural alternatives to animal-derived products to meet their dietary requirements. However, animal-free dairy made through synbio techniques doesn't necessarily check the same boxes as their more natural counterparts.
For example, the genetic information used to create GMO animal-free dairy products comes from a dairy cow's blood sample, which might disqualify them from a vegan diet, depending on how strictly the eater adheres to the principles of veganism. Alternatively, GMO animal-free dairy products may contain lactose or other allergens that people with certain food sensitivities avoid.
So, depending on the individual's reasons for seeking dairy alternatives, GMOs labeled "animal-free dairy" might offer a false sense of security.
A greener alternative? Maybe not.
The biotech industry depicts some new GMOs as environmentally friendly sources of a range of ingredients and products, but verifying these claims is next to impossible. There are too many trade secrets and unknown details in this emerging industry, and industry assessments often leave out external costs and impacts. Many people in the natural products industry are skeptical.
In March, the Non-GMO Project hosted a panel discussion on precision fermentation at Expo West, North America's premier natural products convention. A molecular biologist in attendance said precision fermentation is "as bad or worse than animal agriculture." Meanwhile, panelist and Natural Grocers VP Alan Lewis pointed out that the industry's reliance on fracked natural gas and GMO commodity crops undermines environmental claims.
Ultimately, the public is still in the dark about precision fermentation. If you see the words "animal-free dairy" or “made through fermentation” on dairy product labels, it's worth asking follow-up questions. Here are some suggestions:
- How much energy does it take to manufacture these highly processed GMO products?
- What are the health impacts of consuming foods that we have never encountered before? How does our gut microbiome react?
- Are these products good for eaters and for the planet?
Clearly, we have as many questions about precision fermentation as we have answers. At the Non-GMO Project, we believe curiosity is a virtue, and empowering people to make the right decision for themselves is work worth doing. We'll keep you posted as more information on precision fermentation and animal-free dairy comes to light.