Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Bio-milk- New bioengineering approach through microbial route

In India milk is regularly consumed as a part of a healthy diet and serves the purpose of providing high quality proteins, minerals and other nutrients. Its importance is all the more critical considering that more than half the population is vegetarians either because of religious taboos or economic compulsions and animal products like eggs, meat, poultry, fish etc are shunned by many. There was a time in Indian history when milk was a scarce commodity produced in limited quantities and distributed through rationing. But to day India is the top ranked country as far as milk production is concerned after the "operation flood" programs initiated by the famous Amul cooperative in Gujarat. While statistically production may be adequate to meet the recommended minimum requirement of each citizen, access to milk is some what restricted because of lack of purchasing power with a significant proportion of the population living in poverty. 

If there is adequate milk available globally why should the scientists waste their time in developing animal milk alternatives which do not depend the cattle? It was understandable 70 years ago when there was a short supply of milk and efforts in India were directed to develop cheap milk substitutes from plant substances like Soybean, Groundnut etc.With more and more information emerging about nutrition and health of milk, both positive and negative, consumers are now better aware about what is good for them and what are to be avoided. Animal milk does pose a few problems for many consumers who are allergic to lactose and others afraid of cholesterol present in milk and milk products. Besides, green house emission is becoming a critical issue because many believe that they are responsible for global warming and the consequences flowing from it. According to WHO dairy farming accounts for about 3% of green house gas emissions and cutting down on milk can alleviate the situation to some extent. These are the driving forces that make scientists look for better alternatives to animal milk.

Why is that scores of brands of milk currently available in the market claiming t be as good as animal derived milk have not succeeded to the extent hoped for? Any "pretender" product seeking to replace the "original", as consumers recognize, should satisfy several quality criteria. These include taste, texture, mouth feel, appearance, flavor and last but the least the cooking properties which are hall marks of real milk. The fact that there is no real challenger yet to the milk, really proves that none of the existing products are satisfactory as far consumers are concerned. This is what is driving more and more scientists with burning innovative spirit to take up the challenge to develop a true milk substitute. 

A recent claim by a group of scientists in the US that they have perfected the technology for making a "real" milk substitute based on genetically modified yeast cells needs careful examination. Prima facie the product appears to be capable of posing a serious challenge to animal milk. But they have to travel a long way before a commercially viable product arrives in the market capable of competing with real milk. According to them the product is "fabricated" from 20 individual components which include water, proteins, enzymes, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.  They use six key proteins for structure and function and eight key fatty acids for flavor and richness. But instead of using cashews and almonds as is the normal practice to replicate the curdy backbone of conventional milk, their product preparation starts with bioengineering of yeast to produce authentic milk proteins, which will give it the same taste and nutrition as regular milk. 

The backbone of the process is obtaining casein proteins from yeast through genetic alteration. Yeast is genetically modified by incorporating the DNA extracted from cow and after growing the cultures under optimal conditions of temperature and concentration, the resulting milk proteins are harvested for use in their product they call as "Muufri" milk. Plant-derived fats are then put through the biotech process to replicate the flavor and make-up of milk fats, while sugars and minerals like calcium are added separately. The product can be modified to deliver greater health benefits, using an alternate sugar to lactose for the lactose-intolerant, or leaving cholesterol out altogether. To cap it, other types of milk – goat, buffalo, whole, skim – can also be replicated through this process, so claim these scientists.

The million dollar question is whether a GMO product will be readily accepted by the consumers even if t has excellent nutritional credentials. According to creators of this novel product, the GMO yeast does not enter the product as the cells are removed by centrifugation, only the proteins being used in the formulation. Still extraneous proteins originating from yeast can be theoretically present in trace amounts and cannot be entirely ruled out. But yeast is extensively used in brewing and making bread and this probably may rule out any allergic problem consumers may encounter from Muufri milk. Ultimately if compulsory labeling of GMO products becomes a norm, the product will have to declare the same on its label. and how that will affect the consumer response is uncertain.

Any product intended to be marketed against stiff challenges from its competitors must have cost advantage, at least to begin with, before establishing its credibility and wide consumer acceptance. It is here the Muufri may face some problem as the cost pf production using the new technology is estimated to be double that of conventional milk. Though it is claimed that the product needs no pasteurization because it is made from bacteria free components, this may not make much difference in terms of cost of production. If the health claims are substantiated by independent verification, it has the best chance to be positioned as a well being product commanding premium price. Then the business volume will be rather limited posing no threat to the traditional dairy milk business. 

A point which cannot escape our attention is whether the traditional dairy sector will keep quite looking at this development with a sense of apprehension. Already there are indications that the industry is gearing itself for a massive exercise to boost their products in the market as a result of decreasing consumption of milk by American consumers worrying about the health impact of milk consumption. Emergence of the A2 milk as a healthy and preferred product and lower levels of this fraction in American milk products combined with the perception that milk does contribute to obesity will make the task of pushing more milk into the diet of Americans tougher  It here products like Muufri milk will find an opening to reach the family dining table with relative ease.


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