Going vegan sometimes involves sacrifices, especially if you love ice cream. Because let’s be real: ice cream made with coconuts, oats, or soy just doesn’t have the same deliciously creamy texture as the dairy version. Or it didn’t—until now.
The food company Perfect Day has found a way to replicate whey—a milk protein that’s partially responsible for dairy’s creamy texture—without cows. And companies such as Brave Robot ($58 for four pints) and Smitten ($59 for four pints) are already using the ingredient in their vegan ice creams.
What is animal-free whey?
“Animal-free whey” isn’t as impossible as it sounds. In nature, cows eat grass, which gets digested into nutrients (protein, sugars, fats, etc.) that are turned into milk in the animals’ mammary glands. Sugar and fat are easy to get from other sources, like coconuts, but it’s the whey that makes dairy special, according to Nicki Briggs, RDN, the vice president of corporate communications at Perfect Day.
To recreate the protein, Perfect Day developed a specialized microflora (theirs is a type of fungi, though a bacteria could also work) and “trained it to act like a cow,” says Briggs. Here’s how: Their scientists took the genetic sequence of a cow (without harming it!), and used that as a “blueprint” to change sections of the DNA of the fungi so it would produce whey when fed certain sugars. It’s basically a fancy form of fermentation, the same process that happens when yeast (a fungi) turns grains into beer or bacteria (another type of microflora) turns cabbage into sauerkraut. Once Perfect Day had that microflora, the next step was to put it in a fermentation tank with sugars and let it do its thing.
The resulting whey is identical to what’s produced by cows, in terms of nutrition and function. And it’s not considered a genetically modified organism (GMO), because the whey itself isn’t modified. In fact, “when you test products [made with the Perfect Day whey] for genetically modified markers, they wouldn’t be that,” says Paul Kollesoff, the general manager and co-founder of The Urgent Company, the makers of Brave Robot ice cream.
Is it better for the environment?
The animal-free production process is also more sustainable: Livestock takes up nearly 80 percent of all farmland and accounts for 14.5 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Cow’s milk also has to be transported, and with this type of whey, “you’re not relying on all the fuel and space needed to raise those cows,” says integrative health coach Jessica Cording, RD.
But whey alone isn’t ice cream. To make its frozen dessert, Brave Robot combines the Perfect Day whey with other plant-based ingredients, including sugar and sunflower and coconut oils. (Smitten makes its version, S’Nice Cream, with similar ingredients.) Briggs says Brave Robot specifically chose coconut oil because it emulsifies well when paired with whey to give the ice cream a creamier texture. “The two are working together really well…whereas soy or oat just doesn’t do the same thing. A pea protein slurry just has its limits,” she says. The resulting ice cream is also cholesterol-free and lactose-free, and contains none of the antibiotics or hormones that may be present in non-organic dairy.
Is it nutritious?
Overall, Brave Robot’s ice cream has a similar nutritional profile to dairy ice cream: a two-thirds cup serving of the brand’s vanilla ice cream has 260 calories; 18 grams of fat, including 12 grams of saturated fat; 19 grams of sugars; and 3 grams of protein. “This isn’t a health product,” notes Kollesoff. “It’s rich, joyful ice cream.”
Cording agrees this is a dessert and thus should be enjoyed in moderation. But, she adds, “I tend to favor less processed products with shorter ingredients lists.” (Brave Robot uses additives such as maltodextrin, calcium potassium phosphate citrate, disodium phosphate, and carob bean to give its product a creamier mouthfeel, flavor, and texture.) “However, compared to many non-dairy ice creams, the ingredient list and nutrition profile is very good,” she says. “For someone who is avoiding dairy or wants to make more food choices with sustainability in mind, Brave Robot would be a good fit.”
Brave Robot's vegan ice cream comes in eight flavors: Vanilla, Buttery Pecan, Blueberry Pie, Raspberry White Truffle, Vanilla 'N' Cookies, PB 'N Fudge, Hazelnut Chocolate Chunk, and A Lot of Chocolate. And it's one of the best vegan ice creams that Well+Good has ever tried (and we've tried...so many). "I love ice cream, and can usually tell when I'm eating a non-dairy ice cream because of the flavor or icy, chalky texture," says senior food editor Jessie Van Amburg. "But these taste like any other gourmet ice cream—they're creamy straight out of the freezer and truly delicious."
If you're intrigued by all this, know that Perfect Day's ambitions with its science don't stop at ice cream. Casein (the second protein found in cow’s milk) is the “clear next step” for Perfect Day, which hopes to create “a new category and third option for consumers across the dairy aisle,” says Briggs, including cheese, butter, and milk-like drinks. But until then, you can nosh on these delicious ice cream options knowing that they represent the best of both worlds.
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