They Milk Cows, Don’t They?

You’ve no doubt heard of the many alternatives to cow’s milk that are available these days. Perhaps you’ve even tried a few of them in your quest to avoid lactose. Some coffeehouses have already moved on from soy milk, offering only oat or almond milk instead of 2% and whole. Their reasoning is that soy milk is a highly processed product that can’t be traced back to a single source, which stands in stark contrast to all those bags of single-origin coffee beans.

These nut-based alternatives kicked off what is known as the milk wars — the dairy industry’s fight against labeling plant-based dairy alternatives as ‘milk’ and so on. Well, now it’s getting even more interesting. A company called Perfect Day is making milk using microorganisms that secrete milk proteins. It may sound kind of gross, but it’s essentially microbial fermentation, which is the normal process by which bread, cheese, yogurt, wine, and beer are made.

To be fair, what Perfect Day and other companies are doing is precision fermentation using genetically engineered microorganisms in a bioreactor, so it’s a bit more involved than what you could probably pull off in the basement. Precision fermentation lies somewhere between two modern extremes — plant-based meat and cultured meat. The latter is actual animal tissue grown from stem cells, and is only available at high-end restaurants for exorbitant prices.

What is Milk, Anyway?

Flasks of lab-grown milk.
Flasks of lab-grown milk. Image via Perishable News

The stuff that Perfect Day pumps out is real milk, no doubt about it. As it turns out, milk is relatively easy to create — it consists of six proteins, plus some fats, sugars, and minerals, all in a water suspension.

Even so, both the US and the UK have fairly restrictive definitions for ‘milk’, ‘cheese’, and ‘dairy’. In the US, the FDA currently defines milk as “the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows“, which sounds like it leaves no room for microbial fermentation. However, the FDA already approves of fermentation for cheeses and so on, so they’re kind of in a tight spot.

Things are even more strict across the pond, where plant-based dairy alternatives are basically unwelcome. In 2017, the European Court of Justice ruled that dairy terms such as ‘milk’, ‘cheese’, and ‘butter’ could only be used to describe animal products and not plant-based products. In 2020, Amendment 117 passed in favor of making it illegal for comparisons between the two to be made at all.

The Glass is Half Full

Greenhouse gas emissions by sector.
Image via Our World in Data

Surely the dairy industry will lobby against lab-grown milk — they probably already are. But the dairy industry doesn’t really have a leg to stand on. It is wrought with problems, from over-milking cows to over-breeding them to routinely ripping cow families apart.

Plus, the dairy industry is responsible for 4% of greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than shipping and aviation put together. Considering the climate crisis, it’s utterly ridiculous to impede progress on this front.

There are a lot of upsides to lab-created milk. Thanks to precision fermentation, it could be brewed to be healthier than cows’ milk. All they would need from cows in the future would be small tissue biopsies to get the stem cells.

Without whole cows, there’s no need for hormones or antibiotics, and the milk could be made without lactose and even filled with healthy fats and nutrients. That is, if companies so choose. I would certainly like to see that happen and will be voting with my wallet if so.

90 thoughts on “They Milk Cows, Don’t They?

  1. “What is Milk, Anyway?”

    According to the book “Everything you wanted to know about Sex, but were afraid to ask.”

    Milk is a specialized form of sweat, and mammary glands are a specialized form of sweat gland.

  2. In the US, the FDA currently defines milk as “the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows“

    No sheep’s or goat’s milk in the US, then?

  3. Soymilk is cooked soybeans ground with water, then the pulp strained out (the pulp has some level of nutrition left, and can be an additive to baked goods).

    Nothing could be simpler. I’ve done it, though generally as the first step to making tofu.

    I can’t imagine almond milk being simpler, and somehow oat milk sounds more complicated (but I’ve never read how to make it).

    Soy and nuts do have greater protein than oats.

    I assumed the shift away from soymilk, for the non vegetarians, was trendy or “fear of soy”. As a condiment to coffee, you aren’t drinking it for protein.

    I thought almond growing was water intensive, and that couod be an issue.

    How can this method be more environmentally sound than soymilk?

    Soymilk has been soymilk for decades, long before it could be had at the grocery store. And the process of making tofu is like making cheese, add a coagulant and press hard. Yiu even have curds and whey.

    1. Lots of plants have isoflavones (aka phytoestrogens); it is a whole class of plant hormones. They use it to signal growth and everything else. Same way mammals use estrogrn, testosterone, and other stuff.

      Some phytoestrogens do interact with human hormone systems. But it isn’t as simple as “plant estrogen equals human estrogen”. Lots of trans folks would be so much happier getting hormones from plants instead of paying for pills or injections.

      Phytoestrogens are not a single chemical; unlike human estrogen. Some isoflavones do trigger similar reactions as estrogen, some act as antiestrogic compounds.

      All said, “soy equals estrogen” has been debunked. Isoflavones can raise blood estrogen levels in some people, lower it in others. ( ) Estradiol is necesssry for human life: low estradiol levels have even been linked to erectile dysfunction.

      1. Compared to dairy farming? We throw out millions of pounds of perfectly good food every year because it gets contaminated with cow feces. Poor livestock management means that the waste streams right into the river and other water supplies. The press covers it up by calling it ‘listeria’ or ‘E Coli’ but it’s really cow dung.

        1. Dairy farming might well also be indirectly soy farming – cows are often fed supplement…

          That said I see no problem with dairy as a concept, or industry, globally perhaps farming practices need refinement but there is nothing inherently wrong with milk production – at least to anybody who isn’t part of the no animal products full on fruitarian type mindset. Cows are a great resource for more than just milk, and perfectly natural and required part of the ecosystem (well larger herbivore dung generators that can digest effectively most plant matter – doesn’t have to be bovine, but bovine are good at it) – at least if you don’t stuff ’em all in a shed all the time and call that farming.

          As for contaminated food – Where exactly is this happening and how is it dairy farmers fault? – both things you say the ‘press covers it up by calling it’ are common enough I’d love to know how you can blame any one thing, or what you are doing in your food supply to chain for it to be contaminated at a point you have to throw it out…

        2. There is absolutely no reason why any modern milking system would get contaminated with cow dung. And no dumped milk is not necessarily contaminated with feces. Dumped milk comes from CIP errors, tank temperature regulation issues, but most commonly from infected cows, detected via color sensors, conductivity sensors (more salt in the milk due to the infection), or by manually flagging the cow. And even then good farmers will collect that milk and feed it to calves because it’s still often safe enough for them.

          I worked for a decade in dairy automation up to this year. The US has a garbage system that incentivizes the problematic behavior like treating animals badly and over milking. Look to Canada if you want a better system. Why? Because milk production is directly tied to serotonin so a happy cow produces more milk. In Canada the milk share system incentivizes getting the most milk from your cows over many years. Over milking them will only damage their ability to produce milk so now you need more cows so now you need to pay for more feed and need a bigger barn. Good farmers put a lot of effort and money into making their cows happy. Water beds (or other soft bedding), automated scratchers, music, temperature control, etc.

          Yes bad apples still happen, and they do spoil the image of the industry as a whole but they are a minority and often go out of business because they’re not as competitive.

          1. As well each tank of milk when collected has samples drawn that are tested for multiple types of contamination and for the quality of the milk.

            There are reasons to dislike the dairy industry but all you’re spreading is FUD.

          2. Sorry, as well no manure from a dairy should ever end up in a water supply. It has to go to holding ponds that have to be designed not to leach. Some areas end up requiring above ground storage tanks because the local soil can’t be compacted or is otherwise unsuitable and workable dirt can’t be obtained affordably.

            I have never seen a dairy do this and not be caught and fined.

            The pernitious ones that you might be thinking of are using it to fertilize their crops without proper treatment or aging. But the same problem happens with people raising animals for meat.

      2. I did wonder about that.I

        Soybeans are high in protein, and fairly complete, so they have a redeeming value.

        But if you need a tiny bit for your expensive coffee, you probably worry about environmental damage.

        “Those little things count”

    2. oat milk is simple. it’s like cooking oatmeal, except you add way too much water and simmer it for a long time. if you don’t want to drink a weird thick slime you can add an acid or amylase to break down the starches and make the oatmilk a bit sweeter. Some brands basically add so much amylase that breaks it all down into sugar then is so thin that it’s not really mlik and add some cheap thickener to bulk it back up. This saves on the amount of oats and the amount of time it takes, making a cheaper product. I can tell you from experience that the adulterated oat milk is no good for cooking, but plain old oat milk works great for dairy-free pancakes, corn bread, etc.

    3. I came here to say the same thing about soy milk. I used to make it all the time. Not highly processed at all. But, I’ve always ground the beans, that have soaked over-night, before cooking the resulting soy meal in water.

      But, almond milk is even simpler. For almond milk, just put raw almonds in a bowl of water and leave in the fridge overnight. They swell up, and are really tasty in this state. Put the soaked almonds in a blender with water, and filter the result through a cloth. put the almond meal back in the blender with more water, and repeat once or twice. The almond milk is ready to drink. No cooking. The resulting almond meal also is good for baking.

    4. Almond milk is also simple, and could be done with the same method you describe for soybeans. But unlike soy you can also make it without heating, just grind the Almonds up with water, then strain out the pulp. Personally I find the home made fresh/no-cooking almond milk far superior to any of the store-bought/processed milks. You can also dry out the pulp and grind it up more to make almond flour, so low waste.

      Oak milk is best done with cooking them oat.

    1. AFAIK you need to get the cow pregnant to induce the hormonal change necessary to start milk production. once the cow gave birth the calfe only stay with their mothers for a few days before they get either raise per bottle to become future milk cows or slaughtered at some point for their meat saving all the mothers milk for comercial use.

    2. Could be wrong but cows produce milk after pregnancy to feed their calves. No sense wasting that milk on calves when it could be on supermarket shelves so the calf is removed and becomes a burger.

      1. They do but you only want milk from a few varieties of cows usually. Breeds that aren’t milk cows only produce a fraction of the milk, for less time, and with physical differences in the milk.

        Milk cows breeds are not the breed used for meat. Yes male calves do often become veal but breeds bred for their meat are much more efficient.

        Though meat from actual dairy cows is often very high quality due to the higher quality feed required to produce the milk fats.

  4. “Things are even more strict across the pond, where plant-based dairy alternatives are basically unwelcome.”

    They’re not unwelcome, they just ask you to name them something different not to confuse people.

    1. The entire reason they don’t want it labeled milk is to not compete with the cow milk industry. If I’m looking for an alternative to milk, I’m not going to consider something called “Soy Syrup” or “Oat Juice”.

      1. Or “coconut milk”.

        In 42 years, I’ve ne ver seen a product labelled as “milk” that fine print revealed itas something else. Though maybe I just tune out, assuming it is milk.

        No, it’s soymilk or almond milk and now oatmilk. And cocunut milk. Always another word to define what kind of milk it is.

        1. This is the same industry that started huge legal battles over margarine and whether it could be yellow. And (I think?) they weren’t even trying to call it ‘noun butter’ or otherwise dilute the ‘butter’ brand.

          1. Holdovers from WW2 when butter was rationed and butter alternatives were promoted under silly names like “victory butter”. After the war the alternatives didn’t disappear like the dairy industry wanted, so they lobbied to protect the butter name and look…. Kind of reminds me of Apples lawsuit for rounded corners?

        1. What does the word ‘chips’ mean? Are we in grave danger of confusing potato chips with chocolate chips? And what about the Brits? Should we ban them for calling french fries ‘chips’? So much confusion! It’s a tragedy waiting to happen. We need legislative action!

        1. So bottled water should be removed from the market because they don’t list the impurities, there is GRAVE DANGER of confusion with distilled water.

          And let’s next move to the ‘beer’ aisle where liquids containing rice and sorghum are sold as ‘beer’, how confusing is that?

          1. stop trolling, and there is a thing called “Reinheitsgebot”.

            American lagers made with half the malts substituted with corn and rice aren’t beer, and shouldn’t be labeled as such.

          1. Just checking a milk carton. I don’t see the word cow or bovine any where on the carton. For ingredients it just says “milk”. The only clue that isn’t vegan is a small picture of a cartoon cow. (similar cartoon “happy” cow pictures also appear on vegan products…)

  5. Can anyone out there calculate the carbon footprint of a half gallon of ice cream? I’m guessing it’s about the same as a dumpster fire. Between feeding the cows and removing their feces from the water supply and the transportation and the HVAC you might think as well just set the planet on fire.

    1. Hard to calculate a carbon footprint like this considering all the difficulty in estimating all the factors that play into it, but according to Brave Robot Ice Cream one pint of their icecream has a total emissions of 0.76kgCo2, or about 3 kg for your half gallon. I don’t know how accurate that is but it’s the best info I have.
      As a comparison, that’s roughly equivalent to driving 7.5 miles in a passenger car or a bit less than the emissions from the patty of a quarter-pound hamburger.
      For a dumpster fire… depends on the amount and material in the dumpster but potentially 100s of kg.

      1. You and they forgot to include the food that was recalled due to cow dung contamination. And then we can start counting the lost work and health costs associated with the poopy food that wasn’t recalled, lots of sickness. All to satisfy your craving.

        1. Again milk is almost never contaminated by cow dung. If you want an answer look above.

          The teats of a cow are thoroughly washed and sanitized before milking happens. As well each tank of milk has samples collected at pickup that are tested for multiple types of contamination.

          There are plenty of reasons to dislike the dairy industry but you’re spreading FUD.

      2. I went through a CO2 calculator once, and it was extremely enlightening. You could toggle on and off different factors easily enough that you could kinda back out their formula.

        Being vegan for a year would roughly offset a transatlantic flight, or two or three domestic ones. This kind of big-picture math puts an upper bound on the ice cream claim. Commuting by car was also a big deal.

        They had three levels of personal activity: slothful, normal, and sportmaster. The sportier you were, the more CO2 you created — I guess you have to eat more or something? Probably the ice cream. (This amount was negligible, but it was fun that they added it in, and it gives me an excuse for not going out jogging this morning. I’m saving the world!)

        Anyway, if you’re interested in the big picture, this sort of thing is a good exercise. I find that when you try to account for the costs of every little thing, you can lose your overview. I suspect that X’s ice cream worries are in that vein.

        (Going back to look for it again, I found a bunch of calculators that hide the numbers from you until you’re done, which is kinda stupid, because they don’t let you see the magnitude of each change. Anyone have any good suggestions?)

        1. “I went through a CO2 calculator once, and it was extremely enlightening”

          Not knowing the construction of a CO2 calculator, I would have guessed it to be extremely painful. Are they constructed of metal gears?

    2. As Peter says its very hard to calculate that sort of thing as a generalisation – the local dairy makes ice-cream, doesn’t feed the cows supplements from slash and burn farming halfway round the world, and its only available locally so the total mileage in the ice cream production is almost zip, where the bigbrand ice-cream makers on the hand must ship their ingredients and products further, the ingredients are quite possibly not made as ecologically soundly, but they are quite possibly more energy efficient for their bulk batches… So which one costs more enviromentally? (I’d expect the big brand to be worse but with so many steps in the chain between raw ingredient production through to product delivery its not easy to tell)

      In either case neither costs enough to really matter I would suspect – assuming you eat something approaching a healthy diet not over indulging in any foods that happens made in hugely wasteful way it isn’t a big worry… At least compared to many other elements in our lives, that are easier to change too…

      For instance accepting slightly lower resolution/ frame rate when gaming so you don’t need that 300W of power consumption just in the graphics card – if you were to do all your gaming on a Switch for instance the energy consumption in use is comparatively bugger all – and its not like these lower power platforms actually have to look rubbish (which is why I chose the Switch as an example – as even very pretty games like the Witcher on it look remarkably good (don’t own it but I’ve seen it in person), yes they don’t look quite as good as they could, but still good and immersive. So picking something like a steamdeck or the more thin’n’light style ‘gaming’ laptop or parts from the more power efficient end for your next computer would make a huge saving, in way you won’t really notice… (there is also the material cost of production and if you assume similar lifespan then laptops and portable console like objects are vastly vastly better there – of course if you keep your PC case, fans, PSU, Mobo and CPU and just change the GPU, then next time just change the CPU (and mobo if required) doing a rolling upgrade type method then you perhaps are not much different in e-waste and energy to build – really depends on the frequency of changes)..

      Or another thing that would make a vast difference is just being more pro-active about turning stuff off huge amounts of energy is wasted globally leaving things on that are not being used.

      Or when you travel take a train if you can – its much more efficient than flying or driving, and just plain and simple travel less – do you really need to go?

      And perhaps my biggest pet peeve the constant stream of phone upgrades – your old one is still good use it, if its a simple repair with available spare parts repair it (or send it to somebody to do so, and as battery failure is probably the most common failure and compatible spares for most things are available it should be possible, be nice if they were designed better for it, but at least its possible)…

      There are also low hanging fruit in efficiencies with how poorly insulated many buildings are globally – so much wasted energy making them comfortable for humans, so if you can bump up the R value of your home, switch to more efficient heating/cooling methods too.

      The fact so few people have installed solar when they are well situated to do so as well – if you don’t live in the right type of building, or its orientation is bad not much you can do about it, but when you have the roof space and legally can now they are so cheap why not fit them – its effectively pre-purchasing a lifetime of daytime electricity, and even a small battery (which is perhaps the most costly bit to really put the ideal amount for you in now – fitting may beat it) can be very useful to you…

      I could go on for a very very long time before the dairy industry and food production in general (done right at least) features at all, partly because unfortunately as a consumer you often won’t have enough information to know if the food you buy has been farmed in a way even remotely approaching good, so all you can do is avoid excessive consumption of the foods you know to be worse and seek out the local farm shop type place where you might be able to source stuff you know has been done right – We all have to eat, and that will always have some cost – the best you can do is avoid things you know come from bad sources and the higher impact food groups – dairy really isn’t (always) that bad…As for your dumpster fire comparison, it is probably more like the catch bin on one of those small paper shredders even if its made in shockingly poor way…

  6. Kind of cherry picked the diary being more harmful than aviation and shipping combined. Stop flying around at a whim, stop shipping not needed stuff half way around the world first. A little more complicated than taking a snapshot of today without considering how we got here. The pie chart is interesting, how many data centers are there storing useless information that ‘they’ don’t have the ability to sift through yet? Theses are entire buildings dedicated to this. Selfies, blogs, Twitter feeds/rants, twitch, anything that uses voice command/detection, and so on and so on. Before we start messing with food, maybe we should tackle the elephant/denial in the room? Look up how much information is collected every day, then stored and maintained, go all retro on that, calculated the energy requirement for that. Going after food stuff? Maybe the over the top stuff, perhaps, if we have to. There are bigger fish to fry than dairy, if you dare to write an article on that.

    1. Why not look at both. Suggesting we shouldnt address one problem because there is another potentially bigger problem sounds like difflection….. A pretty common play by lobbiests. HAD has lots of writers, I’m sure they could do articles on both.

    2. We have to eat to live, and the warped incentives on the food industry has produced garbage food that is killing people. Everything needs addressed, but food, being essential, plus an exponentially growing population, maybe deserves to be on the ” early problem to tackle” list.

  7. Doctor Pepper is not a doctor.

    Club soda can be drunk anywhere, not just in clubs.

    They call it ‘Beef Noodle Soup’ but there is no beef in the noodles, by law it should be ‘Beef and noodle soup’.

    If you order ‘surf and turf’ from the menu, you will be greatly disappointed to find out that it isn’t a bucket of salt water and a divot from the golf course.

    That stuff they call ‘crab meat’ in the deli, most certainly did not come from a crab.

    And who coronates these ‘king’ crabs? Are they legitimate kings or only pretenders to the throne?

    And why do they call little solid cubes ‘broth’ ? We all know that broth is liquid.

    We really do need prompt legislative action to address these problems. It’s just as important as catering to the people who can’t distinguish the word ‘soy’ from the word ‘cow’. Apparently we Really Need to protect these people from themselves.

  8. So it is OK to use a GM organism to make neo-milk but it isn’t OK to use a similar organism to protect you from all transmucosal viral infections as per the bioshield concept. What a cruel and twisted world we live in, completely perverted by capitalist motives.

  9. Black bean milk has become popular in Taiwan and Vietnam from what I understand. It is made similarly to soy milk, but is much thicker and with very low isoflavones. It’s a little higher in carbs and less protein, but still nutritious. Beans have a reputation for digestive issues, but it is the fiber that is responsible for them, so it is worth removing it to leave behind a protein rich drink.

    1. It’s the proteins in the beans that are responsible – lectins in beans, especially in soybeans and relatives, act as anti-nutrients by preventing the absorption of calcium, iron, phosphorus, and zinc, and they are poorly digested so they end up consumed by bacteria in the lower intestines, causing wind.

      You basically need to either boil the heck out of the beans or ferment them to get rid of it. Otherwise you will get stomach turns and persisting on a diet of unprocessed beans will lead to anemia.

  10. Does the CO2 output depend on what the cows eat and where they are? A lot of dairy cows only eat grass that grows out of the ground, not much other input required. If they are corn fed then that might produce more, especially if the corn has to travel a long way, but a lot of dairy isn’t corn-fed. The land cows live on is often unsuitable for crops as it is quite hilly but is very good for grass if the weather is wet. No shortage of rain and grass in north-west Europe. You can collect rainwater to feed to cows, they don’t need normal drinking water that uses a lot of energy to produce.

    Where would the raw materials for the ‘fermentation milk’ come from? Would need to be grown next to the fermentation site to be efficient. If it can use grass as a raw material, then that would be useful, but I’d bet it needs all kinds of chemicals that are produced in different parts of the world.

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