Taste testing the ice cream that cost $60 million to create in a lab
It’s no secret just how much the dairy market has changed in the past decade. Sure, bovines are still the behemoths of the sector, but milks made from oats, soy, rice, almonds, and coconuts occupy an ever-growing share of the shelfspace as Americans increasingly enjoy plant-based foods.
As plant-based milks are exploding in popularity, now comprising 13 percent of the fluid milk market in the United States, this clearly hasn’t been good news for the nation’s producers of cow’s milk. Per capita consumption of cow’s milk has been declining for decades, with fluid milk consumption at an all-time low. Not only are traditional dairy companies investing in plant-based milks, some are simply going entirely animal-free.
The same trends that are driving growth in the cow-free milk space—preferences for taste, novelty, health, and sustainability—have also led to a plethora of dairy-free ice creams marketed by the major players. Plant-based ice cream may have once been the domain of small brands in natural foods stores. But as you likely know, from Ben & Jerry’s and Breyers to Haagen-Daaz and Halo Top, dairy-free ice cream is now officially big business.
In terms of taste and texture, these plant-based products don’t always match their cow-produced colleagues. One startup now entering the ice cream space argues that the lack of dairy cow proteins was the Achilles heel holding back the alternative ice cream sector. Until now, they say.
Perfect Day, the five-year-old food tech start-up brewing dairy proteins from yeast rather than cows, is about to commercialize its first product. After raising $60 million in venture capital funding from agribusiness giants like ADM, the company’s cofounders (still both in their 20s) are about to sell their own ice cream. Ryan Pandya and Perumal Gandhi’s key ingredient: actual whey protein that was produced in a large fermenter without the contribution of a single cow.
To be clear, this isn’t an alternative or substitute for whey. It’s still whey protein, just udder-free. Considering how many resources are needed to breed, feed, and confine cows for their milk, big names in agriculture like ADM may envision a more efficient dairy supply chain if they can product milk without the middle-cow. As one meat mogul said of cultured meat: “If we can make the meat without the animal, why wouldn’t we do that?”
Today, if you are one of the first 1,000 customers to sign up on Perfect Day’s website—and shell out $60 for three pints—you’ll secure your place as one of the first humans ever to consume animal-free whey protein. (If that’s your kind of thing.)
Last month, I got a chance to make that claim myself, sampling at the company’s Emeryville, California, HQ their Milky Chocolate and Vanilla Salted Fudge varieties. (Their Vanilla Blackberry Toffee wasn’t offered.)
Before I tasted it, I wondered just who the target audience for this product actually is. The 1,000-order announcement is clearly a publicity stunt; Perfect Day isn’t planning on stocking America’s frozen grocery shelves just yet. But when they do, will people seeking dairy-free ice cream want a frozen dessert with actual dairy protein, even if it didn’t come from a cow?
When you consider just who’s actually buying the plant-based meats and milks on the market now, it’s pretty clear that vegans are a tiny fraction. The fact that Impossible Whoppers at Burger King come with egg-based mayo as the default condiment speaks volumes about who Big Food is trying to attract. Even Tyson Foods’ new meat-free chicken nuggets include egg whites as a binder, essentially telling vegans: We don’t need your business. And for Perfect Day to succeed, it will certainly have to appeal to a much wider audience than vegans.
I don’t doubt that the novelty of such an item will compel a thousand consumers to place their orders this week for Perfect Day’s new ice cream. But if the product isn’t necessarily better for the planet or your health than other vegan ice creams (and at least for now is more expensive), what’s the motivating factor that would drive sales in the long-term? Sure, some sci-fi fans may revel in eating a futuristic food, but the most realistic answer for the masses will simply come down to taste.
You’ve surely heard about the efforts to grow “clean meat,” or real meat grown without raising and slaughtering animals. What Perfect Day is doing is quite different, even if the end result is similar. Unlike companies such as JUST which are growing real animal meat from microscopic animal cells, Perfect Day never needs a donor animal in the picture at all, which is why they label their ingredient as “non-animal whey protein” and suitable for vegans. To clarify further, the ice cream pint packaging advertises that Perfect Day’s whey protein is “identical to protein from cow’s milk—but 100% animal-free.”
The process is pretty familiar even to the scientifically illiterate. Imagine taking brewer’s yeast and feeding it sugar. You know the result: alcohol. Or if you feed sugar to baker’s yeast, you get carbon dioxide to make your bread rise. Perfect Day uses a yeast that when fed sugar produces whey protein. In fact, the same process has been used for decades to make the rennet in most hard cheeses you eat today.
Enter the samples.
I read the label on the carton: The primary ingredients, in order, are water, sugar, coconut oil, sunflower oil, and then “non-animal whey protein,” followed by minor ingredients comprising less than two percent of the pint.
Of course dairy-based ice cream usually doesn’t have whey protein as a stand-alone ingredient. It was hard to predict how this new take on the product would perform, especially considering the whey protein comprises a fairly small portion of the pint, being the fifth ingredient.
Perhaps I should’ve started with the baseline product they’re competing against, but the intrigue of animal-free whey dominated, leading me to push a silver spoon through the light-brown Perfect Day scoop. The chocolate sphere parted for my utensil the way a good ice cream would. When I put it in my mouth, it melted like it should, too. I made a joke about it being hard to go wrong with a frozen combination of fat and sugar. But it was when I tasted the dairy-free competitor that I did indeed notice it appeared to be somewhat less creamy than the Perfect Day variety.
I’m open to the possibility that it was in my mind since I knew which sample was which. Rest assured that for the sake of (ahem) science, I conducted the test several times, confirming my initial observation. Perhaps a sharper contrast would be drawn with animal-based ice creams. You can make that evaluation yourself—if you’re one of the first 1,000 in (Editor’s note: The author of this piece is vegan.)
A new cow-free dairy ice cream on the market is certainly an interesting novelty, but Perfect Day’s founders, both young vegans, claim a loftier vision. On a warming planet where animal agriculture is a leading contributor to climate change and animal welfare exposés often reveal harsh treatment of dairy cows and other farm animals, the idea of producing actual animal products without animals is certainly appealing to many.
No doubt there will be some for whom the marriage of such technology and food won’t be appetizing. Other (perhaps less socially conscious) consumers will wonder why a product like Perfect Day’s needs to exist at all. The company’s success will depend on convincing a potentially leery consumer base that its product is worth a higher price tag, and preferable to both traditional dairy desserts and plant-based competitors.
Perfect Day’s release does make it clearer than ever that commercialization of animal-free animal products isn’t a futuristic Jetsons scenario. Now that you can eat real ice cream without a single trace of cow, what could possibly come next?