As the name infers, Change Foods is poised to take on the world of cheese and go beyond today’s plant-based offerings and craft a cheddar or mozzarella that is identical in taste to a dairy-based product. The trick, company founder and CEO David Bucca believes, is the replication of casein, a dairy protein, that gives the cheese its signature flavor.
Using precision fermentation, Change Foods has a current war chest of more than $15 million from venture firms and food manufacturing companies and collaborations with such giants as Upfield and Mexico’s Sigma-Alimentos. Bucca believes Change Foods will have products on the market in 2023.
Recently, David Bucca spoke to The Spoon about Change Foods’ origins, its vision, and how he hopes to lure current dairy-based cheese eaters to his company’s line of products.
Why take on a market with so many companies already tackling plant-based cheese?
When you look at the limitations of current products on the shelf, unfortunately, it doesn’t cut it for many other cheese consumers in terms of certainly from a functionality point of view, let alone a taste point of view. So, when you’re talking about specifically harder cheeses like cheddars or even a very functional cheese like mozzarella, you expect to stretch and melt and do all of its usual things on a pizza, for example. Then there are clear limitations that you experience with plant-based cheeses.
I think certain products have come a long way, and soft base cheeses and fermented cheeses are all fantastic in their own use application. But you know, they just don’t consider them like cheese for the regular sort of cheese and dairy consumer.
How and why did you move from the aerospace industry to the world of alternative foods?
I was working in the aerospace industry when I started a nonprofit organization called Series Frontier in Australia, which is a think tank and industry accelerator for proteins. And so that allowed me to look at many companies, look at lots of different technologies, and sort of study and evaluate gaps in the market and opportunities. And basically, the conclusion I came up with was that microbial fermentation is such a powerful enabler, specifically when you can focus on specific compounds. One of which was the magic unlock that you find in a dairy engine, specifically, casein.
So, once I drew that connection, we can recreate the key functional component of cheese and dairy, which is casein using a technology that allows you to produce something bio-identically the same. And suddenly, it was a magical epiphany to say that wow, if we can recreate casein exactly one for one, then there is that whole concept of cheese without compromise.
So, your goal is to provide an alternative to dairy that appeals to more than plant-based or vegan consumers.
It’s change without compromise to the average consumer.
We’re seeing high growth in the vegan and plant-based cheese market, which is fantastic. But for the average mass-market cheese consumer, we need something better. We need something that minimizes that compromise that people have to put up with. And I think this is the, and I can do that.
Your focus is on the casein, so is it the same as casein found in dairy?
The DNA is actually encoded in the gene. So, the gene itself is what we’re using one for, one from basically the same gene that you tell that encodes for the cow to produce casein. So, we take that same DNA, but then we use a microbial host to produce that same protein rather than a cow affected by it. So, we’re creating miniature cows in some sort of way whereby we can target specific compounds of interest, one of which is casein that a case is bioidentical.
Other companies using precision fermentation face the challenges of scale and cost. What’s your approach to those issues?
Well, where we’re at today, we’re at the very cusp of straddling the high-cost sort of existing process to now moving it forward into this new era of cost-effectiveness and scalability. And that’s why it’s a challenge. And the biggest challenge is how do we obviously optimize for this protein or company you’re looking for within the lab in terms of getting the microbes to produce things in as high a quantity as possible. But the second challenge is by leveraging the scales of what is the economy of scale in larger and larger fermenters because that’s truly where you start.
The other key component that drives a lot of that is also the regulatory timeline to produce products at scale and via a repeatable process, to then go through the regulatory approval process with the FDA and get aggressive approval for these specific compounds for use in the food.
If you hope to have products in the market in 2023, what do you have in place today? Something I can hold in my hand?
Yes, absolutely. We have a number of benchtop prototypes.
Lastly, please talk about the impact you believe Change Foods will have on climate change and sustainability through its cheese.
If we really want to solve some of the issues around climate and animal agriculture-related to dairy, then this is why cheese is so important. For example, it requires ten liters of cow’s milk to make one kilogram of cheddar. So, it’s a conversion ratio of 10 to 1. So not only is dairy milk unsustainable, to begin with, but then you can compound that by a factor of ten to cheese.
With that in mind, we have to be strategic about making sure there is no compromise on taste, performance cost, texture, price, and convenience for the average regular dairy consumer.