Food giant Unilever is planning a dairy ice cream that uses milk that doesn’t come from a cow.
The company is working on a process called precision fermentation that uses substances like yeast and fungi to produce milk proteins in a vat. A product could be available in about a year, according to Andy Sztehlo, head of Unilever’s research and development in ice cream.
If successful, Unilever could be the first major food company to create an ice cream made from cow-free dairy, dubbed lab-grown milk, in a burgeoning industry dominated by smaller startups. A consumer giant like Unilever developing a precision fermentation version of one of its major brands raises hopes that the technology can scale up and be cost-effective.
“Probably it will be on one of our big global brands, possibly one of our North American brands,” Sztehlo told journalists on a tour of Unilever’s Colworth research facility near Bedford in Britain. The company is working with several startups on such products and Sztehlo said he tasted some prototypes last week.
The plan is part of the ice cream group’s strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the making of products like Ben & Jerry’s and Magnum bars. Cows emit methane—a gas that traps 80 times more heat than carbon dioxide—when they burp. Tackling these emissions is one of the most challenging climate issues for food companies as pressure grows to clean up their supply chains.
Mimicking the structure of milk protein in the lab is difficult because milk contains lots of different kinds of protein. The substitute must blend with flavors and emulsifiers and freeze like regular milk and cream. Last year Starbucks Corp. began trying to sell alt-dairy milk and ice cream made by Perfect Day Inc.
—With assistance from Agnieszka de Sousa.