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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

Real cheese, please, but hold the cow

Change Foods is setting up shop in the U.S. with the goal of manufacturing cheese using microbes and a bit of magic. No need for the real deal; cow's milk, goat's milk, or sheep's milk. This news got me thinking about a couple of things.

There's no doubt we love cheese, so it's an interesting space to build a better mousetrap. I mused about this a few weeks ago when I came across the latest dairy consumption data from the USDA which shows that annual per capita consumption of cheese was 38 lbs in 2019, the highest level recorded. Compare this to 14 lbs per person per year in 1975.

The other day I had a long conversation (which is the basis for an upcoming Talk to Me About Food podcast episode) with someone who has been following a strict whole food, plant-based diet for almost three years. I was impressed with how quickly, and relatively smoothly Michelle and her family transitioned from a typical, animal products-based diet. What's also interesting is that their favorite whole food, plant-based dish is a lasagne, the hero of which are soy curls which she insists are almost indistinguishable from dairy cheese. And Michelle lives in Wisconsin, where they know something about cheese...

So, what is Change Foods doing? They say they are using microbial fermentation to create compounds that are "bio-identical" to what's found in dairy cheese. Change Foods sees a big opportunity because plant-based cheese alternatives don't have the stretch and meltability of real dairy cheese. Here's what it says on their web site; "Using bio-engineering innovations to create real animal-free cheese and dairy products that are better for you, with no compromise on taste, function or texture. All lactose free, hormone free and hypoallergenic. Our mission is to deliver sustainable, healthier and more ethical food supplies for the future."

Stressing sustainability and ethical sourcing should crack open the door for some cheese eaters to consider trying this product. But "bio-engineering," which in this case means inserting DNA into a mix of bacteria, yeast, and filamentous fungi, and "microbial fermentation" conjure images of "Frankenfood" for many, and will make it difficult for that door to swing open.

On the other hand, consumers will likely accept this fake real cheese more easily than meat grown in a vat from animal cells. Real cheese is already a manufactured product; a derivative of what's milked from an udder. It doesn't take much to cultivate cheese from milk. No artificial ingredients are needed, or a complicated, convoluted process, but it is one step removed from food as mother nature created it. It takes some tinkering. Growing a steak through a fermentation-like process, from bovine cells adhering to an artificial scaffolding, is more than a step removed from nature's way, which I think will delay mainstream acceptance of clean, or cell-based meat. There is mystery in meiosis, in the development of an embryo in the cow's uterus, and the maturing of a newborn into a calf and steer. Maybe many of us will not want to let go of Mother Nature's still-awe-inspiring process. We will want to continue traditional husbandry and harvesting of animals.

On the other hand, substituting the wonder at how cheese emerges from traditional cheese-making practices with the magic of genetic manipulation of microbes feels like a trade-off some of us will be willing to make to keep eating cheese without degrading the environment any further.

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