It’s sometimes hard to imagine what a vegan world might look like, given our dependence on animals for all sorts of uses. Convincing people to simply eat more beans and rice, and wear cotton and hemp will be a big part of it. But so might innovations for products and processes we can’t even imagine.
One of those innovations in the works is for Real Vegan Cheese, using the milk protein casein but without the input of a cow. It boggles the mind (or at least my mind) but biotech researchers are working on it right now in labs in Oakland and Sunnyvale, California.
If it works, the casein will be manufactured from plain old baker’s yeast and it will be completely vegan. (It will also be GMO-free.)
For those who “could never give up cheese,” (we all know plenty of those people, right?) it removes that considerable barrier to going vegan. Likewise, for those ex-vegans who insist that they need animal protein, here is their animal protein—but without the animal.
It sounds pretty good to me. But, in every discussion I’ve read about Real Vegan Cheese a concern about casein comes up. Isn’t casein a carcinogen? Why would we want to produce a food that contains such a deadly compound?
The idea that casein causes cancer comes from animal studies in which rats were fed large amounts of isolated casein. Not milk or cheese, just isolated casein. And they were rats. Research in rats hasn’t always served nutrition knowledge very well. For example, the old way of assessing protein quality of foods relied on the PER—protein efficiency ratio—which assessed effects of different proteins on growth of rats. The problem was that rats have different amino acid requirements from humans. Because of those rat studies, nutritionists underestimated the value of plant proteins for decades.
So animal research doesn’t always answer questions about human health very well. Neither do studies that look at isolated compounds. The CARET study is one example of this. It found that beta-carotene and vitamin E supplements raised cancer risk in the subjects. But no one would suggest that we shouldn’t eat foods, like spinach, carrots and sweet potatoes that are rich in beta-carotene.
There are, of course, some compelling epidemiologic studies that have looked at whole dairy foods and have found a link between these foods and prostate cancer. But, those studies show that excessive dairy or calcium intakes may raise cancer risk. The recommendation coming out of that research from the Harvard researchers and others has not been to avoid dairy; it’s been to limit dairy consumption to one to two servings per day.
It’s hard—if you are going to be honest, evidence-based, and unbiased—to make a case again moderate dairy consumption. And, as it turns out, it may actually not be in our best interests—or the best interests of the animals—for us to try to make that case. It’s possible that efforts to portray all animal foods as deadly to human health will leave us with fewer options for helping animals. Because, if vegans believe that casein causes cancer, they are less likely to support a product—like Real Vegan Cheese—that can help more people go vegan and save millions of animals.
I’m certainly not an authority on Real Vegan Cheese, and I realize that there might be some good arguments against it. I’m only saying that if there are concerns about ideas and products that have the potential to help animals, they should be based on real nutrition science.
Because a vegan world is a world where animals are not exploited. It’s not necessarily a 100% plant-based world. And while you and I may be content to eat a diet of mostly or exclusively whole plant foods, we need to be smart enough—for the sake of the animals—to realize that everybody else isn’t just like us. If the solutions that work for us—like Daiya cheese and cashew cream—don’t work for them, we need to find something that does.
Great article, Ginny! Love that you always present both sides and are grounded in the evidence. Thanks for writing this!
” author states: “studies show that excessive dairy or calcium intakes may raise cancer risk.” Studies not quoted here, show calcium eaten in excess of body requirements draws fat from the body and makes soaps cleaning the digestive tract. With an acid stomach, we digest fats, another form of sugar. Without acid, anaerobic bacteria make the toxins found in the prostate cancerous state. These cancerous toxins are not from the digestion of dairy as the author suggests. (Melvyn Werbach MD “Nutritional Influence on Illness” )
Thanks for the post! I can’t wait for Real Vegan Cheese to become a full blown reality.
Only a few years ago in my wildest scifi fantasy I imagined trees that would bear cheese-apples by way of genetic engineering. Now it’s synthetic biology utilizing yeast!
Thanks for weighing in on casein. So much inappropriate vegan propaganda comes back to bite us in our efforts to take animals out of the food equation. This is why we must shun the pseudoscience gurus no matter how they appeal to our biases.
How do we know that the recommendation “Harvard researchers and others has not been to avoid dairy; it’s been to limit dairy consumption to one to two servings per day” is actually based on good science and not just pro-cow milk bias, from money or personal beliefs? You could also say that vegans are biased against cow milk but if you are not consuming milk or getting money from the milk industry, it’s easier to be independent and honest with studies and what the science says.
Cow milk is for cows, just as human milk is for humans. Humans aren’t cows so it doesn’t make logical sense that cow milk would be healthy for humans, especially those who are no longer babies.
Brandon, I don’t think that someone who says “dairy is unnecessary in the diet and too much is harmful, but it’s ok to have up to 2 servings” is showing much of a pro-milk bias. And I know the dairy industry wouldn’t pay someone to say that!
That recommendation is based on the research findings which don’t show any harm with low dairy intake.
Yes, milk is for baby calves, and given the extent of lactose intolerance throughout the world, it doesn’t seem to be a natural food for humans. But if small amounts are not harmful to human health and if people insist on consuming dairy, then it seems like a good idea to find ways for them to do so without exploiting animals.
I’m totally on board the Real Vegan Cheese Train. The interesting thing about this project is that they can make HUMAN Casein for cheese as well, without ever using a single human DNA strand.
Theoretically, make any animal casein provided the amino acid sequence is already in the database. This can also be useful for let say kittens and making real vegan cat casein.
I suspect they use the same process for real synthetic human insulin where they know the amino acid sequence for the protein, figure out the codon and create the DNA sequence which they attach to a gene than encodes another protein the yeast normally make, like an enzyme that it sends out into the fermentation broth.
So the new protein is the enzyme with a casein tail and the yeast produces it in to the broth. Then you cleave the casein off the normal enzyme with another enzyme and recover the casein.
I am hoping this technology evolves where we can make all sorts of animal proteins without using animals, like Real Vegan Snake Anti-venom, which is a whole slew of proteins so the development of a non-animal sourced equivalent has been really slow.
Hi Vegan Scientist, I am interested in the detail of this manufacturing process. How can the yeast be programmed to link amino acids together in a specific sequence? this just seems pretty far out!
We also have to remember the Harvard School of Public Health also says “A daily multivitamin is a great nutrition insurance policy” despite the fact that independent studies continually show multivitamins to be useless or maybe even harmful.
I don’t have much to add, except that I’ve always found this curious as well.
So, we’re talking isolated casein, but from yeast, so… not the carcinogenic kind, I hope? T. Colin Campbell’s work seems pretty convincing on a whole, to me at least. Whether you dismiss the rat trials and look only at the epidemiological data, or vice versa, there are some pretty significant correlations, which, no, don’t equal causation, but do seem to scream ‘less protein’ (<10%) = better health for humans and rats alike. I think that's real nutrition science, or as good as it's going to get, anyway, until billionaire vegans decide to fork over the money for a controlled study. As for converting meat eaters, I just don't know if it's possible anymore. If they know the horrors of factory farms, and THAT'S not enough? Yikes. Personally, it terrifies me to think of food being created in labs like this. I'll stick to cashew cream.
Jennifer, my post actually talks about why those studies don’t support the idea that casein-containing foods are carcinogenic.
I agree with you that converting meat eaters is really hard. Which is why we have to be open to all of the possibilities for ending animal use.
Regardless of the nutritional aspect, or even the possibility of it being carcinogenic, if it can help people who are already lacto-vegetarians to go vegan, it is an improvement. Obviously, those people who are currently eating dairy cheese regularly are not concerned about the possibility that it may be unhealthy. I happen to be married to a vegetarian who eats cheese at almost every meal. If there was a cheese with a taste and texture that was indistinguishable from full dairy cheese but for which no animals had to be exploited, no baby calves had to be stolen from their mothers and sold for veal, then I’ve got to support that. I don’t have to eat it.
Is it realistic to think anyone would ever buy this stuff especially if they wouldnt buy plant cheese? How would it be tested for safety? Or is it being considered “real” food and so human safety testing is unnecessary?
Pardon my lack of understanding but is there any risk in consuming human DNA or is that even an issue at all with RVC? Vegan Scientist says no human DNA strand would ever be used. Clarification please.
While I agree that new vegan-produced products can save animals from being used for food, my simple observation is that the foods that are man made usually present problems. Consider the health effects of cheese, which does not occur in nature, or milk from cows or goats which nature intended for their calves and kids. Or more extreme examples come to mind, such as Coke, potato chips, and candy. I think opting out of preying on animals is good both ethically and for one’s health. But creating more artificial man made foods isn’t necessarily a good alternative.
Do you eat tofu or tempeh? miso? nut butters? pasta or bread? There are many products that vegans eat that are not found in nature, some of which are generally considered to be healthy.
What about our pets? What will they be fed with? Will people also work on inventing and improving plant-based food for them? I know of some products but they lack taurine which is indispensable in feline diet… For me, an obstinate vegetarian, there’s no way animals can’t be expoited to some extent, realistically.
I have an actual allergy to animal milk proteins as do many other people around the world. Would this yeast based protein react in our systems the same way? Or would we be able to ingest this without the reaction?
Depends on what you’re allergic to. If it’s casein then yes you’ll still be allergic.
How come no one is mentioning that to clone the gene that codes for casein into yeast we still need cow DNA, which came from a cow and is therefore an animal product? To me this seems kind of analogous to how they filter wine through isinglass. There’s no animal products in the finished product but it was made using animal products? Does anyone else have thoughts on this?
Casein, shasein. Pass the cruelty-free dairy, please!
Haha, Linda. I agree!