A team of biohackers in Oakland, California has produced what they are calling the world’s first true vegan cheese.
Unlike typical vegan cheese substitutes, which are normally made from soy or vegetable proteins, the Real Vegan Cheese team is using the same cow milk proteins that are used in normal cheesemaking, but with one key difference: there isn’t a single cow involved. In fact, there are no animals involved during the entire process.
So you might be wondering where these milk proteins are coming from, if not from cows. The answer, surprisingly, is baker’s yeast. Perhaps less surprising, the methods for making cheese out of yeast proteins sounds more like something out of a sci-fi novel than a cookbook.
First, artificial bovine DNA, which is chemically-synthesized, is introduced into live yeast. This causes the yeast to produce caseins, the milk proteins which form the structure of cheese. These caseins are then mixed with vegan oil, sugar, and water to produce a milk substitute. Because the vegan milk contains the same proteins as dairy milk, it can be turned into cheese in the same way.
While this may raise some concerns over the ethics of using genetic engineering to produce cheese, the same method has been used since the 1980s to produce insulin, as well as the annatto coloring used in mass-produced cheddar cheese today.
However, that’s not stopping the team from playing the role of mad scientist. Since synthetic DNA from any mammal can be used to make milk proteins, the team has considered the possibilities of cheese made from narwhal and even human proteins. However, those remain long-term plans, as their primary goal is to produce a substitute for cow’s milk cheese.
Still, the Real Vegan Cheese Project has a long way to go before you’ll be seeing it on store shelves. Yeast-based protein synthesis can be expensive and difficult to produce on a large scale. The team is confident, though, that vegan cheese will one day replace most of our traditional dairy cheeses. Only one question remains: would you eat it?