General Mills is aiming to unlock the holy grail aspect of vegan cheese: the stretch. Its “secret”? Microbial fermentation, a process that allows for the creation of the unique proteins found in dairy, sans the cow.
The Minneapolis-based food company recently launched Renegade Creamery, a development brand for the creation of “melty, creamy” cheese made using fermentation and artisan techniques. The website currently displays several mock-ups of potential products, including cream cheese, shredded cheddar, and slices.
The website does not go into details about the process but says that “we start with our signature plant-based formula and then add dairy proteins we created using well-established fermentation techniques. These proteins are identical to those found in cow’s milk, but without the cow.”
Cheese–vegan or otherwise–is new territory for General Mills, but it has dipped its toes into the plant-based yogurt category through its Oui and Go-Gurt brands. Its organic brand, Annie’s, offers vegan mac and cheese and its sole ice cream brand, Häagen-Dazs, makes several dairy-free options. General Mills’ corporate venture arm, 301 Inc., has invested in the artisan vegan cheese brand Kite Hill.
What is microbial fermentation?
The process described by General Mills—microbial fermentation, also called precision fermentation—involves “programming” single-celled organisms like fungi and yeast to produce animal-free proteins that are functionally identical to the ones that are of animal origin. According to the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit that promotes alternative proteins, there are currently more than 50 fermentation focused on creating analogs to animal products, and the fast-growing space netted $587 million in investments in 2020 alone.
In General Mills’ case, the vegan cheese developed through Renegade Creamery will contain the dairy proteins whey and casein, which are responsible for the unique taste and texture of cheese.
While vegan cheese’s reputation has vastly improved from the days of melting into a puddle of oil, it still falls short in terms of melting and stretching in the same way that its dairy counterpart does. General Mills is not the first brand to try to make improvements. Several companies are developing products ranging from ice cream to milk made with microbe-made, cow-free dairy proteins.