The market for whey protein, used in everything from high-protein cookies and sports drinks to giant jugs of protein powder for bodybuilders, is quickly growing: At more than $9 billion in 2020, it may double by 2027. Whey is a byproduct of cheese production, but at some point, the demand may outstrip supply, meaning that extra cheese needs to be produced just to make whey—along with more of the environmental impacts that come from raising cows.
Perfect Day, the food technology startup known for making animal-free dairy proteins used in ice cream—which has raised more than $750 million in funding so far—is now launching whey protein powder as its newest product. “We have the actual nutrition and performance and functionality of whey protein, with all the benefits of being animal free, which previously was only possible with things like pea protein isolate and things like that,” says Ryan Pandya, cofounder and CEO of Perfect Day. “They just don’t taste the same.”
The company uses precision fermentation, meaning that microbes are engineered to produce the proteins in stainless steel tanks similar to those used in breweries. “We’re using fungi that are kind of like yeast, and they’re eating really simple plant carbohydrates, like sugar. Using their internal biology, they’re converting this sugar into whatever product we want,” he says. “And in our case, we’re making whey protein that’s molecularly identical to what cows make . . . harnessing the same sort of biology that cows use, but without the 2,000 pounds of animals, and without all the lactose and hormones and cholesterol and other things that end up coming along for the ride.”
In a lifecycle analysis, the company calculated that its whey protein production process reduces greenhouse gas emissions by between 91% and 97% compared to the protein in milk. Since most of the emissions from the fermentation process come from electricity, the carbon footprint can drop even more if the factories that the company uses shift to fully renewable energy. The process also reduces water use by between 96% and 99%. Since whey is a byproduct of cheese production, though, it’s possible to argue that making whey differently won’t shrink the overall carbon footprint if cheese would have been made anyway. The product may have the most impact if dairy production drops as whey demand continues. (Future products from Perfect Day, such as animal-free cheese that tastes indistinguishable from real cheese, could help accelerate this.)
Natreve, a wellness brand, is the first to use Perfect Day’s whey protein in a new protein powder called Mooless, which contains 20 grams of protein and a digestive enzyme in each serving. Natreve already offers a plant-based protein powder and one made from 100% grass-fed cow milk, but saw the need for another option. “What we wanted to do is elevate that offering to not only just a potential vegan friendly community, but also pescatarian, flexitarian, vegetarian communities, to give them . . . something that has the mouthfeel, the essence of whey protein, the nutritional values, the high amino acid profile, but obviously without having the same impact when it comes to animal production.”
Perfect Day is also launching a brand called California Performance Company through its subsidiary, The Urgent Company. Launching brands itself, the company believes, can help speed up market adoption. “We view our job here as more than just creating products or more than just selling protein,” Pandya says. “It’s building a category and really starting the flywheel turning for an entire industry that we see [has] the potential to change the world.”
While the cow-less whey will start at a premium compared to what you might get in the store, the company hopes that it will come down as production scales up. (Traditional whey has also seen price spikes recently: Earlier this year, because of whey shortages, the price of whey from dairy milk doubled.) “We’re lucky that a lot of the efficiencies that lead to better sustainability for us also result in literally more carbon that would have gone into the atmosphere becoming more food,” he says. “So we view this precision fermentation platform as a really long term cost-efficient and just resource-efficient way of making protein.”