Lab-Grown Milk: Yum or Yuck?

Move over Oatly, there is a new milk in town called Imagindairy. This Israeli start-up makes lab-grown milk that (really) tastes like real milk, without involving a single cow.

Of all the vegan trends, alternative milks (the non-milk milks) are perhaps the most widespread. You’d be hard pressed to come across a coffee shop – any coffee shop - without a colourful array of plant-based milk cartons behind the counter to serve the growing crowd of vegans and lactose intolerants, repeating that familiar tune of: “an oat-milk latte, please!”

So why the explosion in popularity? Like most dietary movements, the alternative milk options fit somewhere between helping the environmental crisis and people’s focus on better health, as more and more people have been complaining of lactose intolerance. In fact, research underpins this as allegedly our bodies are not biologically engineered to process cow’s milk and our cave-men ancestors were built, rather, to digest things such as nuts and berries.

Choosing alternative milks is a great start to combatting climate change, since they use less water and land and generate less greenhouse gases, but they are also one of the world’s worst sources of methane (since cows are notorious farters). So, are plant-based milks the solution?

Plant-based milks have been on quite a journey, and not an entirely positive one. One of the earliest forms of plant-based milk was almond milk, which people thought was a god-send until reports were released that farming almonds in fact used up a huge amount of water, and wasn’t as sustainable as once thought. According to the Sustainable Restaurant Association’s Pete Hemingway, it takes a bonkers 1,611 US gallons (6,098 litres) to produce 1 litre of almond milk. Soy-milk production- another early-bird alternative- was equally criticized by environmental groups for being destructive and too water-intensive as well as being a source of deforestation in Brazil, one of the major soybean producers.

Then came oat milk, which everyone thought was a brilliantly efficient alternative to almond- and soy milk because of its delicious creamy texture and low carbon-footprint. Oatly, one of the most popular brands of oat milk, was listed on the Nasdaq at a value at $13 billion in May 2021 and its share has risen by 32% since it was listed. All this to say that alternative dairy products have also arrived on the radar of investors, indicating staying power beyond the fringe.

But… though oat milk is probably the best alternative to milk (it uses an eighth of the water that almond production does), Oatly, too, has recently come under fire for holding links – arguably outside its own control - to companies which are contributing to the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.

Other than that, there are still swathes of people for whom the nutty, occasionally uber-sweet and often (without sugar) tartly-bland taste of plant milks (any of them) just does not hit the spot. Oat, almond or soy milk in a coffee? It is an acquired taste.

So where do we go from here? What milk-alternative could tick all the boxes? One option is being developed in Isreal by Imagindairy, whose motto “real milk, no cows” does what it says on the tin. Like fake meat, which is made using meat protein, Imagindairy has developed the science to make milk with the same protein structure as real milk- but with no cows involved. The taste test will prove that milk lovers almost can’t taste the difference, just like it is a challenge to taste the difference between an Impossible burger and a beef (aka real) burger.

Whichever form of alternative milk floats your coffee, one thing is for sure: drinking cow’s milk is declining rapidly, and many alternatives are hitting the market. But given the issues which seem to stalk plant-based milks, Imagindairy’s lab-grown milk might just be the answer. Watch this space.

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