Can you take the cow out of milk without losing texture and flavour?

Demand is growing for animal-free milk alternatives, but most plant-based milks, such as oat, soy and almond milk, don’t contain the same nutrients as dairy, nor do they taste the same.

This is why Australia’s oldest dairy cooperative, Norco, has teamed with the CSIRO to back the development of an animal-free dairy product.

It’s a challenge the CSIRO set itself to more than a decade ago. Now its solution is about to undergo the ultimate taste test.

If it looks like milk, tastes like milk and has the same nutrients as milk – will it sell like milk?

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“It’s a fairly close representation, much better than the plant milk available at the moment,” says Norco CEO Michael Hampson.

He doesn’t see animal-free milk alternative Eden Brew as competition. Instead, he sees the Werribee-based startup as a sustainable way to expand the industry at a time when meeting increased global demand is proving a problem.

Not only are suitable pastures and affordable irrigation under pressure from an unstable climate and population growth, the global carbon offset market only has so much capacity.

Eden Brew launched in July 2021 and hopes to have its first ice-cream ready for sale this year.

CEO and co-founder Jim Fader says the global demand for protein will double by 2050.

“While there are numerous milk alternatives, they cannot sustainably meet future demand and don’t achieve the sensory or processability properties of cow’s milk,” says Fader.

This can be done through fermentation – a process with a millennia-long association with the dairy industry. It’s used to make cheese, yoghurt and beer.

Read more: Chemists have figured out the compounds behind fermented coffee’s fruity flavour

The exact process is a trade secret. But the general outline has been offered up by the CSIRO.

It first mapped the genetics of cow’s milk. Then it explored ways of precision-fermenting yeasts. The resulting casein and whey proteins are the same as those found in cow’s milk. And it’s these that give milk its creamy texture, frothy surface, and core nutrients.

“The proteins form the base which we combine with minerals, sugars, fats and flavours to create a glass of ‘milk’,” the CSIRO explains, adding that it is also lactose-free and “cholesterol friendly”.

“When we build with biology, we can make nature-identical building blocks without the animal – at lower cost with less environmental impact and still meet surging protein demand,” Eden Brew chair Phil Morle added.

The product can also be treated like milk.

“We can heat, pasteurise and UHT-process our [milk] to extend shelf life for dairy products of all kinds,” an Eden Brew fact sheet explains. “This will leverage existing milk and dairy production techniques and infrastructure without needing to reinvent the udder.”

About 14 per cent of Australian greenhouse gas emissions come from the agricultural sector. More than three-quarters of that comes from livestock.

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