For a long time now vegan cheese has had a problem. Not only does it rarely melt, stretch or feel like cheese — it just doesn’t taste quite right.
But the calibre of vegan cheeses available in Europe could be about to step up a notch, with two startups — Noquo and Legendairy — recently landing funding for new approaches tackling the vegan cheese puzzle.
They’re riding on a wave of enthusiasm amongst investors for ventures that promise to forge the “protein shift” away from animal-based proteins and towards plant-based ones.
But despite the flurry of excitement for animal-free food, vegan cheese has been relatively slow to attract funding. Vegan cheesemakers in Europe consist mainly of smaller-scale artisanal producers and corporate offshoots; not venture-backable startups like those seen in the plant-based and lab-grown meat industry.
More established brands are yet to veer from the traditional ingredients — like nuts, starch and coconut oil — that have been used to make vegan cheese for decades.
The holy grail of vegan cheese
Last week, Sweden-based Noquo Foods raised $3.6m from investors including Northzone and Inventure for its research-driven cheesemaking that doesn't rely on nuts or coconut oil. Founded last year by food scientist Anja Leissner and former adtech entrepreneur Sorosh Tavakoli, the startup will take a “proteins approach” to making vegan cheese.
In doing so, the startup is chasing the “holy grail” of plant-based cheeses — the ability to imitate the essential protein found in cow's milk, known as the “casein protein”. It's this protein that gives cheese its characteristic texture, taste and meltiness.
“There is no single plant-based protein that will behave in exactly the same way, so it’s something of a holy grail to try to mimic it,” says Leissner, who has now been researching vegan cheese for over three years.
Leissner says that the elusive cheese protein is so complicated that there is no singular theory about how it looks, but in simple terms it is spherical and shaped “like a football”.
Noquo’s approach essentially involves combining different plant-based proteins — such as pulses and other legumes — to form what’s called a “stable matrix”. The key is to select the right proteins and to combine them in such a way that they mimic the dairy protein.
This means Noquo’s research team will focus on investigating plant-based proteins on a molecular level, as well as testing them for flavour, texture and their response to heat and stress. A machine dedicated to measuring texture will be one of the purchases made on the back of the startup's recent funding round.
“The aim is to mimic the behaviour of [casein protein] in different applications, hence not the molecules themselves, but rather how they interact,” says Leissner.
The startup has already developed two kinds of cheese using this technique, but will now be ramping up its research operation with the hope of getting closer and closer to replicating the dairy protein.
The proteins approach is not entirely new — but Tavakoli says its the commitment to research and development (R&D) that will give Noquo an upper hand in cracking the puzzle, noting that most big companies “don’t dare” to take on big, long-term R&D projects.
“People get that pursuing proteins is a promising way of doing it. But it's so hard that you can’t just half-arse it,” he says.
Lab-grown cheese comes to Europe
While Noquo is researching ways of mimicking the cheese protein, there is another approach that sidesteps this problem altogether — lab-grown dairy.
Enter Legendairy, another European cheese startup that recently landed fresh funding. Founded last year by Raffael Wohlgensinger, the Berlin-based startup is pursuing a process called “microbial fermentation”, which involves growing dairy protein using yeast, roughly comparable to how beer is made. Late last year it landed €4m in funding.
Legendairy is not the only startup pursuing lab-grown dairy tech, but is the first to get funding in Europe. US-based startups New Culture and Perfect Day have both been working on the same technology for a little longer.
New Culture, founded in 2018, has used lab-grown protein to produce an ice cream (now sold out), and has plans to move on to yoghurt and cheese. Founded six years ago, Perfect Day has been busy perfecting its technology with the aim of selling to businesses and has developed a stretchy mozzarella cheese.
The fact these startups are able to replicate the exact protein found in dairy brings them one step closer to recreating the same taste and texture as real cheese.
But they face other problems: regulatory change is needed in Europe before these products can be launched, given that the protein made using the particular form of fermentation cannot be legally sold as food. On top of this, like lab-grown meat, lab-grown dairy is difficult to produce at scale and even harder to produce at a competitive cost.
The vegan cheese timeline
The quest for the “holy grail” casein protein is all about making a cheese that truly tastes like dairy cheese, but neither Legendairy nor Noquo have launched any products to the public yet. But Noquo says it should get there first.
“I don't feel like we have the luxury of wasting five, 10 or 15 years before we really address this issue at hand,” says Leissner, referring to the amount of time it could take before lab-grown protein hits the shelves. “We want to put something out there within a couple of years, not within the decade.”
Noquo plans to release a first version cheese later this year, which will have a Feta-like texture. After that the startup hopes to release its “melting cheese” at some point next year.
“We're not planning a big bang launch. We're planning small iterations,” said Tavakoli, adding that they will start selling the cheese by partnering with restaurants. As for price, it should ultimately be cheaper than the nut-based cheeses that currently dominate a lot of the vegan cheese market.
“We really want to make a cheese for everybody. If you want to have a real impact on the environment, you need to have something that is gonna be in that price range that people actually buy for an everyday basis,” says Tavakoli.
Legendairy, on the other hand, will have to wait for legislation to change before it can launch its cheese. So far, the startup says it has proven the technology at a small scale by making Mozzarella cheese, and its chief executive Raffael Wohlgensinger mentioned at a conference last year that the next step is to work on scaling the fermentation process.
While there is no hint about what the cost will be, the fact that a tub of ice cream made by Perfect Day in the US had a $20 price tag implies that there is some work to be done on making the process cost-effective.