Synthetic milk: what it is and how it is produced

Cow’s milk without cows? It’s not science fiction. The synthetic milk is a type of beverage produced from a biotechnological process known as “precision fermentation” where micro-organisms genetically modified are programmed for the synthesis and production of proteins present in milk. The proteins obtained through the cultures of microorganisms are combined with other typical components of milk to obtain a product with a chemical composition, flavor and consistency similar to cow’s milk.

How is synthetic milk produced?

The technique for producing proteins from genetically modified microorganisms is not new. It has already been applied for decades, for example in pharmaceutical field for the production of insulin and antibiotics. Similarly, synthetic milk is produced from genetically modified micro-organisms to produce casein and whey.

These microorganisms are introduced into a bioreattore together with a solution of water and sugars, minerals and vitamins. In the bioreactor, the ideal pressure and temperature conditions are ensured proliferation of micro-organisms which in this way transform sugars into proteins through a simple fermentation process. The proteins thus obtained are filtered and purified thus obtaining the milk-based ingredients responsible for its nutritional value, texture and flavour.

Synthetic milk: is it sustainable and vegan?

Several companies around the world are already producing milk proteins from precision fermentation without the need to obtain them from animal breeding. These proteins are already used in several countries in the production of products such as ice creams, yoghurts, confectionery products and protein supplements. Supporters of synthetic milk and precision fermentation recognize on the one hand the ethical potential: a food product with the same nutritional and functional properties as milk, without the need to breed animals and keep them constantly pregnant; and on the other those of sustainability: synthetic milk produces, in theory, less environmental impact.

On the other hand, there is no shortage of criticism from those who denounce i possible risks of a production process that uses genetically modified organisms, from the unpredictable long-term effects on human health and the environment. Furthermore, for some it would be a more “artificial” product similar to drugs than to foods produced according to traditional techniques. Many farmers are also worried about the possibility economic impact on the agri-food sector by a synthetic alternative to milk low price.

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