With more people reducing their consumption of meat and other animal products, plant-based substitutes have proliferated in supermarkets around the world. Consumers—including those who keep kosher—can now pour a glass of oat, cashew, or even hemp milk to wash down an Impossible or Beyond Burger.
These two core techniques—vegetarian substitutes and cultivating cells—mitigate some of the more urgent and existential problems facing our conventional food system, particularly around environmental impact, consumer health, and animal welfare.
On the plant-based side of the industry, Plantish, also Rehovot-based, does for fish what Redefine has done for meat. Founded in 2021, the company has already developed its first product, and is close to launching commercially. With a proprietary ingredient blend drawn from legumes and algae, the company uses “additive manufacturing” (the term they prefer to 3D-printing, due to its more advanced process) to create a convincing salmon replacement. While other faux seafood manufacturers are making fish fingers or burgers, director of marketing Taire Brown says that Plantish delivers a “cooked, plant-based, whole-cut fillet.”
This challenge may be less significant for companies like Plantish and Wanda Fish. As Heffetz pointed out, “One advantage we have in comparison to meat is that fish [has]… an already higher starting price.” But technological innovations can also help reduce production costs. For example, Future Meat recycles the cultured cell growth medium between production cycles. This helped the company raise $347 million last year, the largest investment in cultured meat history.
Similarly, the first publicly traded cultured milk company, Wilk Technologies claims its edge lies in its patented procedure to culture mammary epithelial cells that will produce real milk. Since about 90% of whole milk is water, the Rehovot-based company only produces the other components (fats, proteins, and sugars) for customers to use however they choose.
Wilk’s vice president of marketing and corporate affairs, Rachelle Neumann, explains some markets they can reach. While vegans don’t consume milk products, she has told many vegans, “You’re going to be able to enjoy a wonderful cheese, yogurt, or butter, with real milk fat, but there were no animals harmed in producing it. The animal is there, and we just produced this in a laboratory.” While each vegan consumer will undoubtedly have a different opinion of this product, Neumann says that for those she has spoken to, “It is like honey to their ears.”
More significantly, Wilk has also extracted human cells to produce breast milk. A high number of pre-term babies born every year can’t digest infant formula. By adding Wilk’s real human breast milk components to formulas, Neumann sees “a complete game changer with true life-saving potential.”
A different Rehovot-based start-up, Remilk, works within a third alternative protein segment. They use “precision fermenting” to produce milk proteins using modified yeast cells. As a single-celled organism that excels at performing focused tasks, yeast may easily be “reprogrammed” to convert sugar into protein rather than alcohol. Remilk does this by inserting part of a cow’s DNA in place of the yeast’s.
Remilk’s head of business development Jason Rosenberg explains that such a process “has been used for over 60 years in industry, initially for insulin production.” Despite investments from such companies as Israeli food giant Tnuva, the challenge for Remilk has been in reaching commercial levels (which they intend to achieve later this year). Insulin, Rosenberg indicates, is “a high-value low-volume product” while milk is the exact opposite. Remilk thus contracts with production facilities, rather than building their own.
Rosenberg cites the process’ long history in addressing consumer fears of genetically modified organisms. “Our process uses a genetically modified yeast, but the protein at the end of the day is not modified.” By removing the waste, their protein is “identical to what the cow produces, with no trace of the GMO.” He differentiates between a modified product, and the modified process that they use.
Israelis “understand that we are really part of something bigger,” said Wilk’s Neumann.“We need to leave a footprint in the world by doing good. It is in our DNA. How can we help the world and make it a better place?”
Joel Haber researches and lectures about Jewish and Israeli food history and culture, and writes about it on his blog and for various publications.