A central argument favoring the growth of alternative protein companies is their ability to easily integrate into the existing food system. They offer the opportunity to reduce emissions now, rather than making net-zero promises for 2025, 2030 or some other uncertain future date.
I’ve been following Perfect Day, a Bay Area based alternative protein startup, and have quickly seen it become a leader in integrating into current food supply chains. The company uses precision fermentation technology to produce whey protein from microflora, circumventing the need for raising dairy cows. Rather than launching its own product lines, it has partnered with a range of specialty brands as an ingredient provider for their low-carbon ice creams, milks and sports nutrition foods.
Today is a big day for Perfect Day, as it announced its first product with a major global food company. After less than a year of working with Perfect Day, Mars is bringing a new chocolate bar to market — which according to Chris Rowe, global vice president of R&D at Mars Wrigley, is "lightning speed" for the company.
The real win of this new partnership would, of course, be if Mars started incorporating the low-carbon dairy into its standard portfolio rather than creating a new product with it.
Rowe estimates that the new bar’s carbon footprint is only a third of the average Mars product, which includes iconic sweets such as M&Ms and Snickers. Achieving a two-thirds reduction in the carbon intensity of a food product in less than a year is something many sustainability leaders can only dream of putting into their CSR reports.
Let the ingredient shine
This is where the magic of alternative protein technology and Perfect Days’ ingredient-focused business strategy come to bear.
First, the technology: The company’s strain engineers incorporated whey genes into the genes of a rapidly reproducing microscopic fungus, allowing it to produce whey protein identical to those of cows. By creating dairy protein without cows, Perfect Day’s lifecycle assessment found that their process uses up to 99 percent less water and produces up to 97 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than traditional dairy production methods. Because dairy makes up a significant proportion of emissions in milk chocolate, replacing traditional whey with Perfect Day’s alternative then results in considerable carbon savings for Mars.
Second, the scaling strategy: Ryan Pandya, co-founder and CEO of Perfect Day, thinks that plant-based dairy has a scaling challenge compared to traditional or precision fermentation dairy because oat, soy or almond-based products require a change in manufacturing practices. "We wanted to go straight into existing supply chains where dairy is used today," he said in a press briefing. That’s where producing a dry whey product identical to the cow-based whey Mars typically uses in its functionality, taste and texture makes a difference. It can integrate swiftly into existing manufacturing infrastructure and processes, as well as customer preferences. "The product is remarkably unremarkable. It’s rich and creamy just like people love, but with a lower impact," Pandya concluded.
I’m curious to see how consumers rate Mars’ new chocolate, which I haven’t tried yet. I recently tasted Betterland milk, which plans to hit stores this summer and is probably the purest use of Perfect Day’s protein to date. The taste and texture aren’t identical to cow milk but come closer to it than existing plant-based alternatives. I also tasted Perfect Day’s whey in the better-for-you Woo chocolate bars, which I’d buy again. For me, they hit the spot in terms of being super creamy but not too sweet.
Impact over ego
This makes me hope that even though the product isn’t perfectly identical to traditional dairy (which it might be one day), it’s good enough when used as an ingredient in something like chocolate and ice cream, which has significant impact potential.
Talking about impact, the real win of this new partnership would, of course, be if Mars started incorporating the low-carbon dairy into its standard portfolio rather than creating a new product with it. This isn’t out of the question for Rowe, who said Mars and Perfect Day are in conversation about other opportunities. But first, the chocolate giant is waiting to hear customer feedback on its initial expansion into climate-friendly dairy.
On a broader level, I wish that more alternative protein companies recognized the strength of Perfect Day’s approach. Yes, being an ingredient company isn’t as sexy as becoming a consumer darling such as Impossible Foods. But for the founders who care more about impact than ego, uncovering opportunities to replace high-carbon ingredients in large companies’ supply chains may be more effective than competing with hundreds of other startups over shelf space and consumer attention.