First of all, what’s “dairy-identical”? Well, it may simply be a marketing term but it is supposedly meaning that a product has been made to closely resemble, nearly being identical then, a dairy product using no dairy ingredients. Being vegan, then. Resembling in all, not just in taste. This includes smell, texture, consistency and mouthfeel.
The new entry in this dairy-identical food category comes from Brave Robot, a brand company of The Urgent Company. The company aims at creating sustainable and animal-free products for consumers that are vegan or vegetarian, or generally caring about the sustainability of what they eat. The main minds behind the Brave Robot’s new ice cream line are Perfect Day, a vegan startup, and the product developer Paul Kollesoff.
The first step in making vegan products that are tastier and accessible to all is ice cream. But only the first, as the long-term objective is recreating all milk-based products, like cheese, yogurts, butter. But let’s see first what it is actually available right now, the “dairy-identical” ice cream.
Vegan ice cream isn’t new
Indeed. Vegan ice cream has been present in stores all around the world since decades, if not centuries, if we count local versions that used simple ice to make slushy ice creams. The difference with this Brave Robot’s dairy-identical ice cream is that it uses whey proteins that are virtually identical in taste and feeling than the classic milk or proteins used in non-vegan ice creams. It is not just a vegan ice cream, supposedly, but it is indistinguishable from a milk-based one.
How did they do it? By inserting a cow’s DNA sequence as a blueprint into yeast-based microflora. This microflora is a type of fungi, though a bacterium would also work. The role of the microflora is then to develop yeast and from that whey, from which the protein that is used to make Brave Robot’s ice cream is made. The microflora, having the DNA blueprint of a cow in it, can replicate the exact flavors and consistency of whey protein that is normally found in cow’s milk. It does that by being fed sugars, from which it can start a sort of fermentation, which turns it into yeast-producing whey. It is not much different from the fermentation that happens when making beer or sauerkrauts (only tastier, hopefully).
Ice cream is only the first product made with this system. Any other whey-based food can be made as easily as ice cream, like yogurt, cheese, and so on. Virtually anything that milk from a cow can make is replicable with this technology, and should taste and feel identical to it. It is not to be considered a GMO, a genetically modified organism, because the whey from which the ice cream is made is not modified. It is only a result of a modification. Nutritionally and functionally is identical to whey that is made from dairy, from which comes the term we spoke of before, “dairy-identical”. By now it starts to sound less of a marketing catch and more like a scientific denomination.
Just whey isn’t enough to make a real ice cream. Brave Robot implements all vegan ingredients, as you would expect. Sugar, sunflower and coconut oils are added to create the final product. The company says that coconut oil was specifically chosen as it pairs very well with their dairy-identical whey, emulsifying into a creamy texture that is what ice creams made with milk are immediately recognizable for.
Obviously, being plant-based, the resulting ice cream is also cholesterol-free, lactose-free, and without any of the antibiotics and hormones that are often present in cow’s milk. It is healthier, as a vegan ice cream usually is, but not exactly low calories. A cup serving of Brave Robot’s ice cream has 260 calories. 18 grams of fat, 12 of which saturated, 19 grams of sugar and 3 grams of protein. People on a diet would do well to consider it as a normal ice cream, nutritionally. Which is what actually Brave Robot is marketing it, anyway.
Brave Robot’s ice cream is already available
The company's new line of ice cream was first launched in July 2020, in selected stores. Now the company has pushed the production to higher levels, and it aims to make the ice cream available in up to 5000 stores across the USA by next April 22 (which is not coincidentally Earth’s Day).
The dairy-identical ice cream can be bought in retail stores as Kroger, Harris Teeter, Albertsons/Safeway, Stop & Shop, and Shoprite, and natural grocers such as Sprouts, Harmons, New Seasons, Fresh Thyme, and Earth Fare. The flavors that consumers can choose from are eight: Vanilla, Buttery Pecan, Blueberry Pie, Raspberry White Truffle, Vanilla ‘N Cookies, PB ‘N Fudge, Hazelnut Chocolate Chunk, and A Lot of Chocolate.
Obviously this choice and the technology behind it comes at a cost that is higher than your normal ice cream. A suggested retail price of $5.99 per pint of ice cream isn’t exactly the cheapest ice cream you can buy, so to say. Neither is extremely expensive though, as Brave Robot wants to make ice cream accessible to everybody, both in price and in the ingredients used, with a huge attention on the sustainability of the product for the Earth. Accessible to not only humans, therefore.
Why not a normal, already well-established, vegan ice cream that is plant-based, you may say? Well, Brave Robot’s has reflected on this and came to the conclusion that most ice creams that are entirely made out of plants aren’t as tasty as ice creams that come from true milk, animals-based. Some are good, some are average. The microflora that has the DNA blueprint of cows is able to produce ingredients that are identical to animal-based milk but are 100% vegan as well. The best of both worlds in practice. Whether this matches the truth or is, again, only marketing remains to be seen, and tasted. Soon it will be possible for any Americans though, so the judgement is yours to make.