How Much Cow Does Cheese Need?

The cheese of the future should be sustainable and vegan

The market for vegan nutrition is booming. Meat substitutes can be found on every supermarket shelf. These products are usually based on vegetable proteins from soy, peas, sunflowers or rapeseed. “In order to work in a truly sustainable manner, however, we shouldn’t expand the areas under soybean cultivation, but rather seek to obtain these proteins by means of a holistic use of plants wherever possible. For example, they could be extracted from the solids – that is, the press cake – left over after producing rapeseed oil or sunflower oil. Today, such leftovers are often consumed as animal feed, even though they contain many valuable proteins,” says Professor Dr. Stephan Drusch, head of TU Berlin’s Department of Food Technology and Food Materials Science. “Food production that simply replaces one raw material entirely with another is in actual fact never sustainable. In most cases, it just causes a new ecological problem.”

Many of his research projects therefore revolve around the sustainable use of plants in food production. Among other issues, his team is working on the further exploitation of currant pomace, which contains a relatively high proportion – 15 percent – of valuable plant proteins. A somewhat different and innovative approach is being taken by a new EU project involving TU Berlin as well as a number of partners including the University of Hohenheim, Wageningen University and two start-ups – Legendairy Foods and Time-Travelling Milkman. Their goal is to produce vegan cheese from milk proteins which are not derived from cow’s milk.

Many vegan cheese products taste more like soy or peas

The problem with most vegan cheese products is that they don’t taste like “ordinary” cheese, but rather like their protein source, for example soy or peas. The starting point for the project, which is funded by the EU within the framework of the EUREKA Eurostars Programme, is milk proteins – caseins and whey proteins, in particular – which also form the basis for traditional cheese production. For vegan cheese, Legendairy Foods obtains these proteins from special microorganisms that have been biotechnologically modified in such a way that they produce these originally animal-based proteins in greater quantities. These microorganisms, from which the proteins are extracted, are cultivated in large fermenters.

“My department and the other universities involved have set ourselves the task of analyzing the spatial structure of these proteins and studying their behavior during the process of cheese production. Part of our work is to determine whether they congregate in the same way as animal proteins. This is important in order to ensure that the texture and mouthfeel are right for the consumers,” explains Stephan Drusch. One cheese that is relatively easy to make is cream cheese. To produce this, milk proteins – regardless of whether derived from cow’s milk or from microorganisms – are acidified and the liquid is then removed. In the vegan cheese variant, specially extracted vegetable fats provided by Time-Travelling Milkman ensure that the cheese turns out creamy. “The firm goal of this funding program is to develop products to the point where they are ready to be launched on the market. The first cheese we want to produce will also therefore be a cream cheese,” says Drusch. However, since novel foods are subject to an authorization procedure, it will be some time before you can find this cheese on the supermarket shelf.

Original publication

This text originally appeared in German on 29 November 2020, in the Tagesspiegel newspaper TU Berlin supplement.

Author: Katharina Jung