Unilever Calls Dairy ‘Problematic’ As It Explores Ice Cream Made From Microbes

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Your favorite Unilever-owned ice cream products could soon be made from microbes. The company is exploring precision fermentation as a means to address its portfolio’s climate impact.

Multinational food giant Unilever says it is investing in precision fermentation to bring cow-free dairy to its portfolio. The company, which owns the Magnum ice cream brand, Ben & Jerry’s, Breyers, and Cornetto, among other dairy-based companies, says it’s working with European-based startups on developing products that could be on shelves as early as next year.

Bringing precision fermentation to Unilever’s ice cream portfolio

The move would mark a major turning point for precision fermentation, making Unilever the first major food company to add the novel tech to its frozen dessert offerings.

But it wouldn’t be the first major food company to embrace precision fermentation; California’s Perfect Day has been leading the shift, partnering with a number of companies on launching products that use precision fermentation—genetically altered microbes that produce dairy proteins without the need for cows.

Could a Magnum bar made from precision fermentation be coming soon?

The technology is vastly more sustainable than conventional dairy production; according to the company, if every U.S. consumer switched to precision fermentation-based milk, it would reduce emissions by 246 million tons.

Bringing precision fermentation to mainstream products

General Mills recently brought precision fermentation to market via its Bold Cultr cream cheese label, and the Bel Group is exploring the tech for its Laughing Cow, Baby Bel, and Boursin labels. Mars partnered with Perfect Day earlier this year on a chocolate bar made with precision fermentation whey. Nestlé also announced it’s working with Perfect Day on developing animal-free dairy products.

Mars and Perfect Day partnered on a precision fermentation milk chocolate

Unilever is following suit—and poised to take the lead. “We’ve got some things coming [in precision fermentation] in the next year or so. We’re working with a number of start-ups on that,” Unilever’s chief R&D officer for ice cream, Andrew Sztehlo, said recently.

Matt Close, president of Unilever’s ice cream division, called dairy “problematic” and said the company sees precision fermentation as a “significant trend.”

According to Sztehlo plant-based product development brings challenges—from taste and texture to allergens such as nut-based dairy. Ben & Jerry’s has been using nut milk bases to recreate some of its most popular flavors. Sztehlo says precision fermentation could eradicate some of those issues. “The challenge we have [with vegan products] is that the structure is different, the stability is different and the taste can be different,” he said.

While Unilever isn’t ready to disclose more details just yet, Sztehlo told reporters that it would probably be “one of our big global brands,” he said, “possibly one of our North American brands.” 

Lead image courtesy of Unilever.


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