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Whether you’re allergic to lactose or prefer plant-based alternatives, it’s hard to find milk that actually tastes the same as cow’s milk. Traditional dairy products, from cheese to ice cream to sour cream, are hard to duplicate using plant-based swaps. They rarely taste the same as the original, and differences in texture and consistency can leave you with a less-than-ideal experience.
But a number of companies have spent years trying to perfect dairy products in laboratories, without animals. And now, some of those products are finally hitting grocery store shelves.
More sustainable than cow’s milk and other kinds of animal-produced milk varieties, lab milk is poised to revolutionize the dairy industry. And, thanks to a key ingredient that plant-based alternatives lack, it may even taste like the real thing.
What is lab milk?
Lab milk is a pretty close replica of cow’s milk. Simply put, it’s a cow’s milk alternative that doesn’t use any animals or farmland in its production process. This milk is made in a laboratory, much like lab-grown meats.
Like plant-based milks, lab milk doesn’t include all of the same components as cow’s milk. It’s vegan-friendly and free of any animal-sourced ingredients; there are no animal cells in these products. But unlike plant-based milks, lab milk is made to be identical to cow’s milk in both its taste and its nutrients.
Lab milk is made from modified yeast. Scientists use varieties of yeast, like Trichoderma reesei yeast, to ferment whey and casein. These are two of the primary proteins found in cow’s milk. Some varieties of lab milk are made with bacteria, fungi or non-yeast microflora – but no matter what’s used, the end goal is fermenting those proteins.
The whey and casein are then separated out, filtered and dried into a powdery substance. That powder is mixed with water, plant-based fats and sugars, and a number of vitamins and minerals to create a balance that’s just like cow’s milk.
Lab milk itself hasn’t hit grocery stores just yet, but it’s on its way. Currently, companies like New Culture, Perfect Day and Remilk are working on getting mass-produced lab milk out within the next year or so. Some lab milk products, however, are actually available right now.
Lab milk is a more “realistic” alternative to plant-based milks
There’s one huge advantage to lab milk that other non-dairy alternatives can’t beat. It’s a more realistic and accurate replacement for traditional cow’s milk.
Plant-based milks make decent alternatives, but each has its own flavor and its own consistency. Some, like coconut milk beverages, are thinner. Others, like almond milk, get pretty close – but they taste a bit different. And when it comes to nutrients, plant-based milks are all over the map. While a cup of whole cow’s milk delivers over 8 grams of protein, a cup of almond milk offers just 1.5 grams. Coconut milk offers just 0.5 grams of protein.
Additionally, plant-based milks can lack important nutrients found in cow’s milk. Typically, plant-based milks have to be fortified with vitamin D and calcium; otherwise, they contain very little or none at all.
Lab milk, however, is made to be as nutritionally identical to cow’s milk as possible. It replicates the same amount of protein, fat, carbs, fiber and even vitamins and minerals. Cup for cup, it’s the more realistic – or accurate – alternative.
Lab milk is lactose-free and eco-friendly
Thanks to its animal-free production process and ingredients, lab milk is both more ethical and kinder to the environment. Cow’s milk and other animal-based milks or dairy products are a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The dairy production process alone makes an impactful contribution to climate change, and it uses natural resources in large quantities.
Lab milk, on the other hand, doesn’t have such a negative impact on the earth. It takes animals out of the process completely and has no animal welfare concerns. The production process has a significantly smaller carbon footprint and produces much less pollution.
But the perks don’t end there. Lab-created milk is also perfectly suitable for anyone with a lactose intolerance.
Lactose is a sugar that’s found only in mammals’ milk and milk products. If you’re lactose intolerant, your body lacks the enzyme needed to digest lactose – and it means you can’t enjoy products made with this sugar. But you can enjoy lab milk. Lab-created milks are made with plant sugars, which don’t contain lactose. All lab-made products, like ice creams, cheeses and other dairy products, are great for the lactose intolerant.
There is one catch, however. Lab milk is likely unsafe for anyone who’s allergic to cow’s milk. Because lab milk includes casein, one of the primary proteins in cow’s milk, it can cause a similar allergic reaction. Even though this protein comes from plant sources, it’s still a potential allergen. To err on the safe side, check the labels on the lab-made products you’re interested in. They’ll carry an allergy warning label if there’s a risk of milk allergies.
How do lab-made dairy products taste?
Pick up a pint of lab-made ice cream, stick a spoon inside and you’ll discover that it looks incredibly familiar. It’s nothing like the sorbet-ish texture of many dairy-free ice creams, and it has a different texture and taste than lactose-free products.
In fact, ice creams made with lab milk are surprisingly great. I picked up two pints from my local grocery store – Nick’s Swedish Mint Chip and Brave Robot’s Vanilla ‘n Cookies – and tasted them against a traditional pint of vanilla ice cream made with cow’s milk. As soon as I cracked the lid on each pint, and scooped some ice cream, it was hard to tell what wasn’t “real” dairy.
The lab-made ice creams had the exact same smooth, creamy and thick consistency of cow’s milk ice cream. They scooped the same way, and the lab-made products didn’t suffer from any of the issues most non-dairy ice creams do (like a lighter, flakier or less creamy profile).
And when it comes to taste, lab-made ice cream is downright impressive. Both flavors wowed me. They tasted just like any other mint chip or cookies and cream varieties. Their richness made the ice creams taste indulgent, and the flavors were delicious. If I hadn’t consciously chosen lab-made varieties, I wouldn’t have known that these ice creams were any different from the usual cow’s milk products. I’ll definitely be grabbing more lab-made pints during my next trip to the store!
Like traditional ice cream, lab-made pints are versatile too. You can scoop lab ice cream into a cone, turn it into an ice cream sandwich with cookies or eat it right out of the pint – since lab-made ice cream is already available in many different flavors, there are plenty of possibilities.
With a taste of lab-made ice cream, it’s easy to see just how impressive a product it is. These animal-free, eco-friendly alternatives don’t taste like alternatives at all. They taste just like the real thing, but have far more benefits.
It’s important to note, however, that lab milk ice creams do tend to contain some additives and stabilizers. Right now, the options available have gums and sugars included on their ingredient lists. So, if you’re interested in giving these eco-friendly and realistic alternatives a try, keep this in mind.
Lab milk products are already available in local grocery stores
While lab milk is still a short ways away from hitting the shelves of your local grocery store, lab-made dairy products are easy to find.
Ice creams that are made with lab milk are available at retailers both local and online. Popular ice cream brand Graeter’s has partnered with lab milk startup Perfect Day to sell animal-free lab milk ice cream online in a variety of flavors. Nick’s Ice Cream is another brand that uses the same lab-made base, and you can purchase pints online. Big retailers like Sprouts Farmers Market and Ralphs also sell these brands, along with others, right in their local stores.
Lab-made cheese is also expected to arrive in stores in the near future, though it’ll likely arrive after lab milk hits the market. As vegan cheese products and other non-dairy cheese swaps have shown, getting the right consistency and flavor profile from cheese is trickier than you might think.
Of course, even with the invention of these lab milk products, other non-dairy alternatives are still great choices. You can learn more about some of these products: