Swiss Cheese: Scientist Marité Cárdenas Is Developing A Plant-Based Protein That Mimics Milk Casein

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Scientist Marité Cárdenas is currently developing a plant-based protein that will mimic casein in milk in an effort to create dairy-free milk that is suitable for vegan cheesemaking.

Sweden-based Marité Cárdenas, a professor at Biofilms Research Center for Biointerfaces of Malmö University is working on a project, ‘Nanocapsules and recombinant proteins for nutritious vegan cheese making’ to develop a vegan cheesemaking process that is quite similar to dairy cheese and also maintains the same nutritional value.

Funded by pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, the grant is usually given to those projects that are working on solutions to improve the wellbeing of people. In addition to the grant, Danish biotech company, Chr. Hansen is also advising Cárdenas on the project.

Cárdenas’s process includes imitating casein in milk, which is necessary in the traditional dairy cheesemaking process and serves the function of making the baby calf keep drinking its mother’s milk. With bacteria or enzymes reacting with the proteins in milk, curd is formed and this can then be used as the base for cheese.

There are a lot of dairy products, which of course are produced from milk, and milk is a difficult material to mimic. So the idea is to work out how to mimic it so we can produce dairy products that are plant-based. The current vegan options are not really mimicking dairy cheese production; they are doing something completely different and that is because there is a great technological limitation

Marité Cárdena, professor at Malmö University

However, Cárdenas mentioned that the process can be tough without the specific proteins. “This process is difficult to mimic if you do not have these specific proteins, which only exist in animals. A lot of companies are trying to produce them recombinantly using yeast for example, this is something which is done by a molecular or synthetic biologist.”

Using her knowledge as a physical chemist, Cárdenas hopes to formulate milk from the plant-based proteins. “There are a lot of dairy products, which of course are produced from milk, and milk is a difficult material to mimic. So the idea is to work out how to mimic it so we can produce dairy products that are plant-based. The current vegan options are not really mimicking dairy cheese production; they are doing something completely different and that is because there is a great technological limitation.”

Source: freepik

Highlighting the need to maintain the same nutritional value as dairy milk, Cárdenas said that if it is going to be made from scratch, there is no need to do it the way nature does it. “Nature designed milk because it needed the milk, it didn’t need cheese! We can make it the perfect milk for cheese making. We can add things in the milk which are good for the body, such as vitamins and minerals which are lacking in a vegan diet, and formulate them in such a way that they will remain in the cheese. This increases their chance to actually be absorbed in the body.

Vegan cheese is having a moment around the world with many researchers and brands coming forward to provide dairy-free cheese to consumers. For instance, in November of last year, Hong Kong-based Nuteese officially launched offering Hongkongers handcrafted, fermented, and activated nut-based gourmet cheeses.

In the U.S, Los Angeles-based vegan startup Grounded foods raised US$1.74 million in seed funding to develop plant-based cheeses out of non-GMO hemp seeds and cauliflowers.

In the alternative dairy report published by Singapore-based vegan review platform abillionveg, researchers called 2020 as an ‘explosive’ year for plant-based dairy. Aside from this, experts at Dublin-based Research and Markets predicted that the vegan cheese market is going to grow at 8.91% annually reaching a total global market size worth US$4.57 billion within the next four years.


Lead image Marité Cárdenas, courtesy of Malmö University.


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