This Vegan Cheese Technology Is Blowing Our Minds
Boston-based food technology company Motif FoodWorks expects to launch "prolamin technology," which enables vegan cheese to melt like the real thing, by the end of 2021. | Motif FoodWorks

This Vegan Cheese Technology Is Blowing Our Minds

Advancements in food technology is bringing vegan cheese that melts, stretches, and bubbles like dairy closer to reality.

Vegan cheese is in its Renaissance. The days of slices that melt into a puddle of oil or, the very opposite—shreds that won’t melt even if you go at it with a blowtorch, are coming to an end. Vegan cheese, a longstanding barrier to flexitarians who want to quit dairy but just can’t give it up, can now legitimately be called velvety, buttery, creamy, and decadent. Not only is there now hope that plant-based cheese can stand toe-to-toe with the “real thing,” but advancements in food technology is actually giving it an edge over dairy.

Food companies are now able to culture bloomy rind cheeses like brie using traditional dairy-making techniques. But instead of dairy, they use plant milks made from nuts, seeds, and even oats. But while artisan plant-based cheese is practically indistinguishable from its dairy counterpart, the more processed varieties—like American, the all-star of grilled cheese sandwiches—still fall short. Not for much longer, though. Boston-based ingredient innovation company Motif FoodWorks now has access to technology that enables vegan cheese to melt, bubble, and stretch like dairy.

The company now has its hands on what is called “prolamin technology.” The prolamin that Motif FoodWorks uses, also known as “zein,” is a byproduct of wet milling corn to extract starch and oil. And, to put it simply, it helps plant-based cheese melt real good.

“What’s unique about acid plasticized corn prolamin is that it softens with increased viscous behavior while heated, giving the prolamin the meltability and stretch otherwise seen in dairy cheeses,” Mike Leonard, CTO of Motif Foodworks, tells LIVEKINDLY. 

Melty vegan cheese has historically been made from coconut oil, which produces a creamy texture and a more uniform ability to melt, but not without sacrifice. Many of these oil-based cheeses still turn into goo when you turn up the heat—delicious goo, mind you, but it’s not exactly what flexitarians are looking for when they’re looking to replace their favorite cheese.

But, prolamin technology prevents that. Leonard adds that “the formula contains a background network of various food-grade binders to help bind the oil and prevent oil loss during heating.”

Prolamin technology is thanks to a research collaboration with the University of Guelph in Ontario, which has been ongoing since 2019. Dr. Alejandro Marangoni, Tier I Canada Research Chair in Food, Health and Aging at Guelph, said in an interview that the university and Motif FoodWorks intend to fully replace coconut oil as the fat of choice in plant-based alternatives. 

Motif FoodWorks expects its plant-based cheese technology to be available as soon as next year.

Creating Vegan Cheese 2.0

Motif FoodWorks has released video footage of prolamin technology’s potential in vegan cheese, but has yet to announce when consumers will have access to products made with this. LIVEKINDLY has reached out to the company for additional information. 

The vegan cheese, which has been melted in a skillet, does indeed appear to bubble like conventional cheese. However, Motif is not alone in applying new technologies to create animal-free cheese that is nearly identical to the dairy cheese. It’s part of a whole new breed of startups that are using precision fermentation, the use of microorganisms such as bacteria (like yeast) or fungi to create animal-free proteins. And many of these companies say that these proteins are the missing link to achieving that stretch as well as the mouthfeel of “the real thing.” 

Mozzarella is the perfect example of cheese that has that coveted stretch—think of those long, stringy strands that happen when you pull apart a conventional mozzarella stick. Now for a little bit of chemistry. According to the Cheese Science Toolkit, mozzarella’s stretchiness is thanks to three components (which also happen to be present in all cheeses, but at different levels): protein, fat, and water.

The primary protein is known as casein, or casein micelles. These micelles form sort of a three-dimensional net held together by calcium molecules, and within the holes of that “net” is a combination of fat and water, also known as the serum. 

The more serum a cheese has, the further apart the micelles are from each other, the softer the cheese will be, the better it will melt. For example, your hard cheeses, like parmesan, which doesn’t get very stretchy when heated, has a lot less serum than mozzarella. And when heat is applied, micelle “net” that gives cheese its structure at room temperature begins to stretch while the calcium “glue” that bonds the strands together is broken and reformed. 

Acid, which can be added directly or in the form of bacteria cultures during the cheesemaking process, also plays a role in stretchiness. High acid cheeses like feta will get soft when heated, but it won’t melt. A low-acid variety like blue cheese will melt, but it doesn’t stretch. Mozzarella and cheddar, which are both somewhere in the middle, melt and stretch beautifully. 

Circling back a bit, casein created through precision fermentation is the magic ingredient when it comes to vegan cheese 2.0.

“Whichever microorganism is used, the foundational principle of precision fermentation is that these microorganisms are used as machinery to produce the specific compound of interest, for example dairy casein, when fermented,” Irina Gerry, CMO of Change Foods, tells LIVEKINDLY. The Bay Area-based newcomer aims to launch realistic vegan cheese made using undisclosed organisms to a test market in 2022.

Once that fermentation cycle is complete, food scientists filter out the desired compounds and are left with a pure protein isolate, which is then ready to be used as an ingredient. 

The precise nature of creating only the compounds needed for specific functional, nutritional or taste properties allows us to create foods with desirable attributes, like stretchiness in cheese, and skip any negative ones we may not want,” she adds. These undesirable aspects can include lactose or the environmental impact of dairy, for example.

The Cheese Revolution Is Here

The vegan cheese market is poised for fast growth. Research and Markets data shows that the global plant-based cheese market was valued at $1.24 billion in 2019 and is expected to reach $4.43 billion by 2027. Even dairy heavyweights, like Danone and Bel Brands, are entering the foray. But the real revolution is being led by companies honing in on the previously-mentioned precision fermentation technology.

Perfect Day, a Berkeley-based startup makes molecularly-identical dairy proteins, which it has sold to several ice cream brands in order to launch dairy-free desserts. The company says that vegan cheese is coming later this year. WIRED reporter Jimi Famurewa, who received a sample of a cream cheese prototype from Perfect Day’s lab, described it as “emphatically creamy, tangy, indulgent cheese.”

New Culture, a Kraft-Heinz-backed biotech startup that switched headquarters from New Zealand to San Francisco, is implementing similar technology to create animal-free mozzarella using casein, the protein responsible for the coagulation of the cheese. Matt Gibson, CEO of New Culture, tells LIVEKINDLY that the public will be able to try its cheese in 2023. “The cheese will be sold through food-service first and co-branded with restaurant and take-out partners,” he adds.

Israel-based startup Remilk has also chosen to focus on producing animal-free casein. So is Those Vegan Cowboys, a Belgium-based company founded by the former owners of the now Unilever-owned meat-free brand, The Vegetarian Butcher. Germany’s Formo also aims to reach consumers with its own branded product.

Investors have taken interest in this new protein frontier, according to a recent report from the Good Food Institute. Fermentation companies raised $587 million in 2020, representing a twofold increase from 2019 and 19 percent of overall funding in the alternative protein sector.

If this new wave of alternatives melt like cheese, stretch like cheese, and taste like cheese, without all the bad stuff, then it could convince even the most die-hard dairy fan to fall in love with the vegan version. And that would mean good things for the planet.