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Fi Europe 2022

‘Consumers are open and curious about animal-free dairy' [Interview]

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Animal-free dairy is a relatively new concept to most consumers but with ethical concerns surrounding traditional dairy products, motivation to explore animal-free alternatives is going to increase in the coming years, says Irina Gerry.
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Irina Gerry will be speaking at Fi Ingredients Europe, held this year in Paris from 6-8 December and from 28 November to 8 December online, on the topic ‘Animal-free dairy: a revolutionary development in dairy alternatives.’ Gerry is chief marketing officer at Change Foods, a US-Australian precision fermentation food tech startup, creating animal-free cheese. She was previously senior brand manager for plant-based brands at Danone, and spent five years working on leading plant-based food and beverage brands Silk and So Delicious. We caught up with her ahead of the event to find out more.

How educated are consumers around animal-free dairy? Will they want to eat these ingredients?

“Most consumers have never heard of animal-free dairy. With [the] exception of Perfect Day’s animal-free whey protein, which launched in several retail products in the US, the category is still in its infancy. We have a lot of work to do as an industry to create a common ground approach of how we educate consumers on what these products are and what they are not. This includes some of the most fundamental elements, such as nomenclature and use of common language to explain this technology to consumers, as well as more complex areas, such as regulatory approvals in different markets. Tackling these challenges in a coordinated fashion, creates a ‘rising tide’, for the industry.”

Can these ingredients be considered natural?

“Natural is such a tricky word because there is no formal definition in the food industry. Do [consumers] consider current animal products natural? With close to 99% of animals in the US, and over 72% of animals in the EU raised on factory farms, and with heavy reliance on GMO crops to feed them, plus antibiotics to keep them from infections due to crowded conditions, our picture of a happy cow in a field is largely a relic of the past.”

“There is a large misconception around what makes food “natural” in consumers’ minds. For example, most consumers consider cheese to be natural, and yet 90% of cheese globally is produced with a milk curdling enzyme called non-animal rennet, which is made via precision fermentation. The same process we are using to make milk proteins without the cow. The same process that has been safely used in food for over three decades to make countless other enzymes, vitamins, and natural flavorings found in many food products around the world.”

“The most fascinating part about milk proteins produced via precision fermentation is that while the process is different (we use microbes instead of cows), the milk protein is actually identical to the one you would get from a cow. I would compare it to the way we make electricity – we can make it by burning coal or by installing solar panels on our roofs. At the end of the day, we flip the switch, and the lights go on. The electricity we get is the same, even though we changed the process. Does it make the electricity any more or less natural?”

What kinds of products do you expect Change Foods ingredients to be used in? With cheese, for instance, there aren’t many plant-based alternatives that really match the texture of traditional dairy cheese. Which other products do you feel Change Foods can have positive impact producing?

“Cheese is where we see the biggest opportunity because there is such a large gap between consumer expectations and what plant-based alternatives are able to deliver. Milk protein, casein, is the key ingredient that makes dairy cheese melt and stretch. Precision fermentation allows us to recreate this exact protein without the need to raise animals. And, because we are not recreating milk, we are able to skip lactose and cholesterol.”

“There are, of course, countless other applications of this technology beyond cheese. We can add high quality protein to many animal-free dairy foods such as milk, ice cream, and yoghurt, step-changing the category and thus challenging consumer perceptions on what animal-free dairy can do.”

Nestlé recently announced that it is exploring emerging technologies for the development of animal-free diary protein-based products. What are nimble startups teaching large food companies about animal-free dairy?

“Collaboration happening across the entire food industry, with many startups partnering or working with large food companies to help bring these new technologies to market. Change Foods, for example, is collaborating with two global food companies: Upfield and Sigma Foods. There is an incredible synergy to be realised when nimble startups like ours bring important emerging technologies to large food companies, which can offer scale, distribution, and consumer goods industry expertise. It is our belief that we can transition to a sustainable food system faster by working together.”
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