Noga Sela Shalev (right), CEO of OurCrowd's food tech incubator Fresh Start, in the laboratory, May 15, 2023. Courtesy.
Noga Sela Shalev (right), CEO of OurCrowd's food tech incubator Fresh Start, in the laboratory, May 15, 2023. Courtesy.

‘Cowless’ Remilk gets Health Ministry approval

Making a case for phony baloney (and other alternative proteins).

The Rehovot-based Remilk company, a prominent player in developing and manufacturing dairy protein without animal involvement, has received approval from Israel’s Health Ministry.

This significant regulatory milestone paves the way for Remilk’s non-animal dairy products to be marketed and sold to Israeli consumers. It also positions Israel as one of the pioneering countries in providing with eco-friendly, genuine dairy products that are cow-, lactose- and cholesterol-free and devoid of antibiotics and growth hormones.

I asked Alex Shandrovsky, an adviser for early-startup accelerators in the food tech industry, “Why?”

Why is Israel pouring so much money into cell- and plant-based protein development?

Why are Israeli companies focused on creating innovative raw materials and components?

Why has Israel become a leading hub for food technology?

Recently, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly tasted a grouper filet constructed on a 3D printer. But, why do we need to recreate food? Why can’t a steak just be a steak? Or a glass of milk—simply be a glass of milk? The kind we get from a cow.

Israel’s food tech sector has witnessed a remarkable surge in investment, increasing from $53 million in 2015 to $866 million in 2021. The sector encompasses a diverse range of cutting-edge solutions that include nutrition, cultured meat, new ingredients, alternative proteins, packaging and food safety, processing systems, retail, restaurant tech, health and wellness.

Israel, with the second-most food technology companies after the U.S., hosts more than 100 alternative protein companies. Forty percent of them are startups with breakthrough technology that is shaping the future of our food.

According to Shandrovsky, the main drivers behind food innovation include providing the solution to feeding a growing population effectively.

“In 2050, it is expected that the global population will exceed 9 billion people,” explains the business adviser. “As the population grows, the middle class is expected to grow as well, making the demand for meat and dairy excessive to effectively feed the growing population. It all boils down to how we scale the farming to meet the demand.”

And, according to the U.S. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases—part of the National Institutes of Health—approximately 68% of the world’s population is lactose intolerant. In some countries such as Ghana, Malawi, South Korea and Yemen, 100% of the population is lactose intolerant.

Alex Shandrovsky

Dairy-identical milk proteins

This, says Shandrovsky, explains the necessity for products like Remilk’s, which, unlike plant-based alternatives (soy, oat, almond, coconut), according to the company, produces dairy-identical milk proteins and has developed a patented approach to scalable manufacturing. This requires significantly fewer resources than traditional dairy, and dramatically increases efficiency in production without compromising taste, functionality or nutrition, the company says.

According to spokeswoman Barbara Marks, Remilk is safe for people who are lactose intolerant but it is not for people who are allergic to dairy.

Shandrovsky says you would never be able to taste the difference in the result. Furthermore, countries that don’t have the resources to raise cattle will still be able to access dairy.

Remilk in April became the first company to secure regulatory approval for non-animal milk protein in Israel. It has raised more than $130 million and signed deals with leading players in the global food industry.

Last year, the company, which is already producing its protein at industrial volumes in facilities around the world, announced an agreement with the Central Bottling Company (CBC Group), the Israeli franchisee of Coca-Cola and one of the largest food companies in Israel, to launch a line of dairy products made with Remilk’s protein for the local market.

Ori Cohavi, chief technology officer and cofounder of Remilk, says, “The breakthrough achievement of Remilk’s R&D team lies in its success in converting a technology that has been used for decades to create components for the food industry such as vitamins and enzymes in small quantities, to produce one of the most significant and high-quality components in the food industry. Our milk protein, produced on an industrial scale, allows us to practically change the face of the dairy market.”

Noga Sela Shalev, CEO of OurCrowd’s food tech incubator Fresh Start, says, “The current methods of producing milk often involve a significant environmental impact such as greenhouse gas emissions from cattle farming, water pollution from manure and deforestation for grazing land and feed crops.

“Therefore, some alternatives to traditional dairy milk have been developed, such as plant-based milks, lab-grown milk and milk produced by genetically engineered yeast or bacteria. While these alternatives are not necessarily ‘natural,’ they can offer a more sustainable and environmentally friendly option for those who want to reduce their reliance on animal-sourced products,” Sela Shalev adds.

Ethical food production is a huge driver for alternative protein innovation, according to Shandrovsky. “People will look at the result—the meat, the cheese, and as they scrutinize the process, they might not feel comfortable with it. And then there is the health component. Now, the only way to keep animals healthy together in a pen is to feed them antibiotics. Is it healthy for the animals? Or for those drugs to end up in our bodies?”

Parve steak? Kosher bacon?

Shandrovsky says Israel also has unique reasons for being a leader in new proteins.

As attitudes towards shechita kosher slaughter erode around the world, he asks, what happens if kosher meat is banned? And, of course, there are Jews who want to observe kashrut but may want to enjoy foods such as veal parmesan or bacon, which, until now, have been forbidden to them. But the most important reason for the thriving technology is that Israel has a powerful academia, immense creativity and a government that supports the effort, he says.

Of course, the process of creating the new foods may affect the kashrut or dairy/meat status of the foods.

There are three approaches to food innovation in Israels’ laboratories, says Shandrovsky: plant-based alternatives; cell-based alternatives, which use cells or fermentation to create original cells or components to recreate the product; and hybrid products, which use plant-based products plus the elements of cell-based products to create a 70%-plant-based alternative. Some of the products have already received approval from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.

“When I go into a lab and I meet scientists producing the solutions, the tools they are using are incredible,” Shandrovsky says. “Measuring how people chew to create the identical mouth-feel of the food. Another process analyzes smell. A third process analyzes the ‘look’—the texture. Does it have grain to it?”

Even the taste and look of blood to render a hybrid steak “rare” can be replicated using beet concentrate, which he says approaches the exact flavor and look.

A supportive ecosystem

Overall, the combination of an entrepreneurial culture, culinary openness, expertise in agrotech and biotech, and a supportive ecosystem for early-stage innovation has made Israel a hotbed of food tech innovation, Sela Shalev explains.

“Israel has a thriving startup culture that fosters innovation and risk-taking, which are essential for developing new and disruptive food technologies. Israeli cuisine is known for its fusion and openness to new flavors and food experiences—a fertile ground for experimentation and innovation in the food industry.

“Israel is a world leader in agrotech and biotech, with a highly skilled and knowledgeable workforce and a supportive infrastructure for research and development in these fields. This expertise can be leveraged to develop new technologies for food production and processing,” Sela Shalev says.

“Last but not least, the Israel Innovation Authority has recognized the importance of food tech early on and has created a supportive ecosystem for early-stage innovation in this field. This includes efficient tech transfer mechanisms and early-stage funding programs, well-supported by a tight-knit community of food tech startups. Fresh Start is an exact example of this supportive structure, leveraging government funding and private market capabilities,” she explains.

Sela Shalev points out that, while there is an overall slowdown in investment in many sectors, both globally and locally, food tech appears to show a relatively lower decrease. Overall, the outlook for investment in food tech remains positive. The need for innovation in this sector is still very much existent, and there is a continued flow of funding to support the development of new technologies and solutions.

She adds that despite the current global high-tech slowdown, pre-seed and seed capital rounds are still active in Israeli food tech and continue to attract investment. While overall venture capital investment has slowed, there seems to be an increased corporate interest in food tech. And with governments also recognizing the importance of the sector in addressing global challenges such as food security and sustainability, and providing support and grants to startups and innovators in this field, the innovations continue to blossom.

But will these food alternatives take off in restaurants and kitchens? And if they do, what will happen to dairy cows and other domestic cattle being raised to end up on our plates?

Said Shandrovsky, “That will be the challenge for the large commercial food producers. Price point and taste will always drive the market.”

He added, however, that there may always be places like Italy that ban cell-based meat, seeing it as an affront to their culinary heritage.

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