For years, dairy-free consumers have trusted the vegan label* as a first line for identifying foods. Vegan, by definition, means something that does not use or contain animal products, including meat, eggs, and milk products. But food scientists have complicated this simple equation with a new type of genetic engineering.
When Vegan Isn’t Dairy-Free, a New Era of Engineered Food
A Silicon Valley start up, called Perfect Day, can now create milk proteins (casein and whey) without cows or any other mammals. How? They’ve transitioned milk production from factory farms to hi-tech production facilities. A representative from Perfect Day explained their process as follows.
… there are specific genes responsible for making dairy protein. In the conventional method of making milk, these genes are present in cows and instruct their bodies to turn feed into milk protein. However, since scientists have already digitized the cow’s genome, we know what those genes are and can reproduce them, using DNA synthesis, in sequences that microflora can read and use. Using those genetic sequences, the flora is able to produce the same protein as a cow. Perfect Day uses a microflora called Trichoderma, which is one of the most common flora used to produce food ingredients.
The end result is actual cow’s milk protein that can be used to create dairy products. Since these dairy products didn’t involve cow’s in the manufacturing process, just their genetic road map, the company classifies them as animal-free, plant-based, and vegan. But make no mistake, these genetically engineered products are dairy. And even the company confirms that they are not safe for many people with milk-free needs.
Who are Perfect Day Products for?
The primary mission of Perfect Day has been sustainability. People who make vegan purchases based solely on environmental or animal rights concerns might feel better about purchasing products made with Perfect Day’s dairy proteins. No cows are directly used in the making – just software, petri dishes, and production equipment.
Perfect Day products are also hormone-free, so they are a possibility for consumers seeking dairy without hormones. And they’re lactose-free, since the company is only reproducing the isolated proteins, not the other components in milk. People who currently consume lactose-free products without issue might be fine with dairy products made from Perfect Day milk proteins.
But if you are allergic or sensitive to cow’s milk protein (casein or whey), Perfect Day states to avoid their products. As always, if you are dairy-free for any medical reason, then you should speak with your physician before considering any product that is labeled as dairy.
Will Genetically Engineered Milk Proteins be Disclosed on the Label?
Per the FDA food allergen labeling regulations, milk must still be clearly disclosed on the ingredient statement. But even that could be a bit confusing. One product states “non-animal whey protein” in the ingredients, and then “contains milk protein” at the end of the statement. I want to make sure you are aware of what “non-animal” milk proteins are. The company isn’t required to elaborate on the ingredient or to state the protein is genetically engineered.
“Vegan” Products that Use Perfect Day Milk Proteins
Products made with Perfect Day proteins might carry labels like “vegan,” “plant-based,” “lactose-free,” or even “animal-free,” but they are not dairy free. Perfect Day boldly states “Dairy” on their own brand, but this isn’t the case with all brands using their milk proteins.
Below are examples of “vegan” products that are made with Perfect Day dairy proteins. The list will likely grow, particularly since they are currently working on a marketable vegan dairy milk. And the company has recently acquired even more funding. So keep you eyes open!
Perfect Day Ice Cream
Perfect Day test marketed their first pints under their own name last year. They produced 1000 pints, and sold them for a whopping $20 a pint. Despite the hefty price tag, every pint was gone within 24 hours. These pints won’t hit the mainstream, but they have begun marketing their vegan dairy ice cream under other names.
Brave Robot Ice Cream
Perfect Day spun off The Urgent Company to create a consumer-ready brand: Brave Robot. These new “animal free dairy” ice cream pints have a more friendly price point. And they are already landing on grocery store shelves in California.
Smitten Ice Cream
A local San Francisco company called Smitten Ice Cream has also teamed up with Perfect Day. They’ve launched a new N-Ice Cream line under their own brand, but made with vegan milk protein. Unlike the others, their packaging is a little more deceiving. It states “vegan” and “lactose free” without a noticeable mention of dairy. Their artisan touch also carries a much higher price.
Source for All Photos Above: Perfect Day Foods
Graeter’s Perfect Indulgence
In 2020, Graeter’s launched a “vegan” line with Perfect Day’s milk protein. It’s labeled as animal-free and lactose-free, but like those above it is not dairy free.
Photo Source: Graeter’s Ice Cream
Our Question: Why Not Human Milk?
Why did Perfect Day choose to create cow’s milk proteins instead of human milk proteins? It’s genetically engineered, so in theory, they should be able to create human milk proteins just as easily as cow’s milk proteins. Human milk protein would not only be a sustainable option, it could also be safe for almost all people, including those with milk allergies or sensitivities. Not to mention, human milk protein would be a more natural fit for our bodies. And it could be used to create medically necessary products, like better infant formulas and nutritional drinks. Is Perfect Day ready to take a bigger step for science and health?
*All manufactured foods are at some degree of risk for potential cross contamination with potential allergens like milk. If you have a severe or highly sensitive food allergy, you must always contact a manufacturer to discuss their allergen processes prior to consumption. Labels are added as guides, but only you can decide what is safe for your needs. See our May Contain Allergy Statement Post for more details.