The Newest Dairy Product Is Real Milk, But It's Made Without The Cow
The market for milk that isn’t milk has been one whose cup has runneth over for some time. With so many non-dairy and plant-based alternatives flooding the refrigerated section of our supermarkets, along with shelf-stable options and old-school powdered forms, we’re drowning in not-milk options. From soy beans to fava beans, rice to coconuts, almonds to pecans, oats to sesame, is there a plant out there that hasn’t been milked yet?
But interestingly, that doesn’t mean Americans aren’t still drinking real-deal moo juice.
According to writer Aimee Levitt, who recently covered the economics of the plant milk industry, “Studies have shown that a lot of dairy drinkers plan to stick with cow’s milk. Even plant milk drinkers don’t drink plant milk exclusively.” And we can’t get enough of either, as sales of both have increased at about the same rate. So although headlines say the dairy industry is in serious trouble, it’s actually pricing that’s to blame — not competition or a lack of demand.
With that in mind, there’s no slowdown in sight for manufacturers milking this white wave. Its latest entrant? Something that might be a happy medium: Bored Cow’s real milk that doesn’t come directly from an animal … but it also doesn’t not come from animals.
What we mean is genuine article, chemically and genetically “real” milk, but made with zero animal involvement, thus straddling the bridge (and bending the minds) of vegans. It could be the future of dairy.
What is this sorcery?
If “wait, what?!” was your reaction, join the club. Because how on earth do you make real milk without cows?
It starts with Perfect Day, the brainchild of Ryan Pandya and Perumal Ghandi, two bioengineers and would-be vegans who wanted to know the chemical science behind how dairy milk is so creamy and satisfying. With the support of Isha Datar of New Harvest, teachable little microflora and an accelerator program in Cork, Ireland, they were able to find out.
Using precision fermentation, an age-old process that co-opts microflora’s natural biological processes to turn them into “cell factories” that produce enzymes, vitamins, pigments, fats and more, they were able to teach the flora to replicate the DNA sequence of dairy milk. The result is a strain of beta-lactoglobulin whey protein genetically identical to that which makes true cow’s milk that is technically purer than the real deal since it’s free of lactose, cholesterol, hormones and antibiotics.
If that all sounds nuttier than the refrigerated non-dairy display, before you dismiss it as Frankenfood, remember that fermentation has been a natural part of global human diets for centuries. This process and all these bitty flora are what we can thank for sourdough bread, kimchi, cheese, beer, vinegar, and now, animal-free dairy. And while the microflora is genetically engineered, the milk protein they make is not, so it still counts as non-GMO.
Once Perfect Day’s engineers were able to segment and develop the whey protein, it became a matter of application. Since the limited release of its own ice cream in 2019, which sold out in record time, it has been the brand quietly in the background of every product boasting animal-free dairy, including partnerships with other ice cream brands.
Since then, the brand has also branched out into protein powder, baking mixes, cream cheese and more via their consumer brand Urgent Company.
But all of these can cleverly disguise any faux milk flaws behind piled-on flavors. And milk derivative products hidden in powder form do not a milk make — which brings us to Bored Cow.
Bored Cow offers products in several flavors and varieties.
Why would anyone want animal milk that doesn’t come straight from animals?
People make the switch from dairy milk to plant-based milks for a lot of reasons. For some, it’s ethical. There are many who feel the dairy industry is inherently cruel, and extreme waste due to processor availability is undeniable. Then there’s the whole problem of bovine emissions to consider, as climate change looms overhead.
For some, it’s a lifestyle choice to switch to pescatarian or plant-only diets, while others are forced into it for health reasons like lactose sensitivity or intolerance. That’s not to mention those who opt for the lower sugar and reduced calorie count of some milk alternatives.
The introduction of Bored Cow solves some of these, but it does sit in a milky-gray area.
For instance, is it vegan or not?
The answer depends on your interpretation, but Ben Berman, co-founder and CEO of Bored Cow, has joined California Performance Co. in using the term “vegan-friendly, to help ensure that people don’t confuse us for dairy-free.” Because, as he acknowledges, “We do recognize that ‘animal-free dairy’ is an oxymoron.”
And yet it’s truthful even under the most microscopic of lenses.
Even though the genome sequencing of the invention matches that of a Montana cow named Dominette, there was never any need to involve her since her genes were already common-sourced via the Bovine Genome Project. Because it was recreated in a lab, fermentation-derived, fed on plant sugars, and no animals were involved ever, it fits the definition of vegan in the strictest sense.
That is, unless you’re looking at technical, chemical composition. Since it does share the essence of what makes milk “milk” and is therefore unsafe for those with milk allergies, it’s still cow’s milk, albeit lactose-free and lower in saturated fat.
Those who are off cow’s milk for environmental reasons will be glad to know that’s what drives Bored Cow’s parent company, Tomorrow Farms.
“We’re on a mission to win hearts, minds and stomachs to fuel the sustainable food revolution … better for people, kinder to animals, and easier on the planet,” Berman said. “We recently conducted an [International Organization for Standardization]-aligned life cycle assessment with a third party expert to compare the impact of our Original milk to conventional and organic dairy milk from farm to factory and Bored Cow uses up to 96% less land, up to 67% less water, and emits up to 44% fewer greenhouse gasses.”
Is it any good?
That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?
Personally, I had a lot of skepticism as to how this new milk was different from a pre-mixed bottled protein drink and how it could match the nutritional, textural and flavor profile of never-powdered milk; Berman himself struggled to explain it in a nutshell.
“Taste and functionality are still the most critical decision points. I fall into this bucket personally,” he shared. “We created Bored Cow to replicate the taste, texture, nutrition and functionality of conventional dairy milk. Like other milk alternatives, we combine our protein with plant-based ingredients, vitamins and minerals.” But unlike those alternatives, in a side-by-side comparison to the generic market milk I had in my fridge, I found the nutrition panel to be nearly identical, if not better.
“Just like conventional dairy milk, a serving of Bored Cow has 8 grams of complete protein, amino acids and all, and is an excellent source of calcium, vitamin D and B12,” Berman said.
The result? Honestly, it’s pretty spot on, and the plain Original is not the same as a protein shake. The plain is thicker, richer and creamy, and the flavor is distinctly milky, which you won’t find even from unflavored protein powders. And in direct contrast, its Whey Forward formulation is thinner, sweeter and available in dessert-y flavors, none of which can be mistaken for milk. However, the chocolate, vanilla and strawberry versions float somewhere in the middle, with a more watery initial feel, immediate flavor blast, and milky aftertaste.
As a lactose-free milk, it’s not as smooth as a2, the brand that changed the game by removing the a1 protein attributed to milk-based gut sensitivity. Rather, it finds a happy medium flavor-wise as if mixing a lactose-free milk — which tends to be very sweet — with regular milk. The viscosity of it in a glass, in cereal, and in my iced coffee mimicked that of 2% or whole milk, and unlike plant milks, didn’t break in hot coffee. Even better news, Berman said: “It froths, foams, cooks and bakes just like cow’s milk.”
The downside is price and availability.
The bad news is that it’s not priced just like cow’s milk — even at Bessie’s priciest and most organic.
Retail pricing is $5.49-$6.49 per quart for the Original, which makes it a tough swap for families going through a gallon (which is four times that) per week. However, the smaller, lunchbox-friendly 11-ounce cartons of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry flavors are more on par with individually sold drinks at $2.49-$2.99. While that’s nearly double the cost per container of boxed organic milk, those portions are smaller and what one would expect from a protein drink or convenience store grab.
However, the product has only just entered distribution with Sprouts Farmers Market in the shelf-stable part of the store (and refrigerated dairy in some locations), so who’s to say scaling up won’t help lower costs in the long run? It’s up to consumers to decide its fate.