ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
On this hot August day, we are going to dip into some ice cream - not just any ice cream. This ice cream represents a scientific breakthrough. Here's what's up. Lots of researchers are trying to create food from plants that taste like meat. Burger King starts offering its plant-based Impossible Whopper across the country next week. Now we're talking about companies that use microbes to create animal proteins without the animals. To explain more, NPR food editor Maria Godoy is here in the studio.
MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: I'd be interested in this story even if it did not give me a chance to eat ice cream, but I am especially interested by what you have in front of you right here.
GODOY: Right. Well, what we have right here is an ice cream from a company called Perfect Day. And what they did is they took milk protein, called whey, and they created a synthetic version of it. And then they trained microbes - they genetically engineered microbes to produce this whey protein in vast quantities. So basically, they turned the microbes into little protein factories, and there was no animal involved in the process, the company says, so it's basically vegan. And then they put the whey in ice cream, and what whey does in ice cream is it gives it a nice creamy, velvety texture.
SHAPIRO: So you've got a pint of milk chocolate and a pint of vanilla salted fudge in front of you.
GODOY: That's right. You want to try it?
SHAPIRO: Of course I want to try it.
GODOY: I came armed with scoops. Let's see. All right, here you go.
SHAPIRO: All right. It's really good ice cream.
GODOY: It tastes like ice cream, right?
SHAPIRO: I would totally put this next to Breyers or Ben and Jerry's.
SHAPIRO: Does this company think the market is mostly vegans or do they think it's bigger than that?
GODOY: So here's the thing. Yeah, they want to make better options for vegans, but, really, what they want to do is change the way all of us eat, especially omnivores. The whole idea is that livestock agriculture uses a huge amount of land and water resources, and it produces significant greenhouse gas emissions. And so what these companies say is, if you can produce the animal proteins you want without having to raise all those cows, you're going to be a lot more sustainable. And ultimately, they say, they can produce those proteins cheaper, too.
SHAPIRO: Could other foods be produced this way?
GODOY: There are other people looking at different animal proteins that they can make using the same technology. For instance, there's a company called Clara Foods, and they are focusing on egg white proteins. They foresee using it - some of it to boost the protein content in, say, sports drinks. There is a company called Motif Ingredients that's actually looking at a whole host of proteins derived from animals, including egg and dairy and meat. And they want to become a ingredient supplier, including to all the plant-based food companies that are popping up.
SHAPIRO: So the McDonald's, the Shake Shacks, the Burger Kings, the In-N-Out Burgers of the world could be making stuff that, effectively, is meat or dairy but just never actually came from an animal.
GODOY: Exactly. That's the idea.
SHAPIRO: Why is this happening now? Why are all these companies springing up at this moment?
GODOY: Well, there's a couple of reasons. One - they're seeing the success of the Impossible Burger, which uses biotechnology to create plant-based burgers that taste like real meat. And they're trying to get in on that. But the other issue is that climate change has become a more pressing issue, so a lot of consumers are looking for ways to eat less meat and animal-derived products in their diets.
SHAPIRO: What do regulators like the FDA have to say about this?
GODOY: OK, so the interesting part of this is this technology is already out there, as high-tech as it sounds. If you eat cheese, you have eaten the products of this technology. There is an enzyme called rennet that's important in cheese making, and we used to get it from the stomachs of slaughtered calves. But several decades ago, scientists figured out how to get microbes to produce the enzyme, and now a lot of the cheese we make is made using rennet from microbes.
SHAPIRO: Are there groups that oppose this?
GODOY: Yeah. Well, as you can imagine, for one thing, big dairy isn't too happy about it. And one of the things they're concerned about is that consumers will assume that products made with these proteins have all the same nutrition profile as something made with dairy from a cow. And they say, for instance, it may not have all the vitamins and minerals that that would have if it came from a cow. There's also concerns from some environmental groups. And their concern - well, one of them is that regulators won't scrutinize the technology enough. They also don't want our food supply to become even more dependent on biotech. They say technology can have repercussions you don't foresee.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Maria Godoy, thanks for the reporting and for the ice cream.
GODOY: Oh, my pleasure.
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