In the world of plant milks, the base ingredient is everything. The variety is dizzying: cashew milk, soy milk, coconut milk, almond milk, oat milk, even macadamia milk. We call them milks, but they don’t act like cow’s milk. Some taste bitter when heated or separate when cooled. Until recently, none had mimicked actual dairy.
That was exactly what NotCo, a start-up founded in Chile, wanted to do. Over several months starting in 2019, scientists there developed artificial-intelligence technology to find plants that could function like cow’s milk at a molecular level. There were times, however, when the humans had to intervene – like when casein, the main protein in cow’s milk, was simulated by an algae that turned the drink an unappetizing shade of blue.
Then the scientists landed on something promising, and not blue.
“This is freaking milk!” Matias Muchnick, the company’s chief executive, recalled saying after his first taste. “What is it?”
Two of the key ingredients, it turned out, were pineapple and cabbage – something no human would have ever dreamed of pouring into their breakfast cereal. The product, called NotMilk, uses more than a dozen ingredients, including chicory root fiber, coconut oil and pea protein, to make what the packaging calls a “plant-based milk alternative.” Featured on the carton: a drawing of a cow crossed out in black – erased.
Along with Impossible Foods, which last year announced it was investing more toward developing its own faux dairy-milk prototype, NotMilk is charting a new course in the industry: claiming to make vegan milk that can taste, cook and froth like cow’s milk – much like imitation-meat makers did with beef a few years ago. But NotCo is taking its own approach, using an algorithm to help scientists solve the biggest riddle of plant-based foods – making them delicious enough for omnivores, but with a lower carbon footprint than dairy.
Sold at Whole Foods in the United States, NotMilk will reach nearly 3,000 U.S. grocery stores this year, in addition to being available in Chile, Argentina, Colombia and Brazil. Investors include Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, which owns Whole Foods. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.) NotCo also makes plant-based mayonnaise, ice cream and burgers using the same base technology.
NotMilk’s success will depend on whether it can deliver on its promise, and whether people can wrap their minds around what it is.
Is it milk? Is it not milk?
“It’s provocative, of course,” Muchnick said. Raising those questions, and learning the answers, he said, is all part of the process of getting to know the milk.
As the dairy industry struggles and demand for plant milks booms, shoppers have grown accustomed to seeing cartons of Almond Breeze and Rice Dream. But to find out what’s in NotMilk, they have to flip over the container and look at the ingredient list.
Other companies have tried to market themselves without labeling their base, said Stephen Williamson, the chief executive of Forager Project, which makes organic plant-based foods including milks. Ripple, for example, touts itself as “plant-based” on the front of its milk bottle with no mention of its base ingredient: peas.
“Nobody has been successful with a nondifferentiated base,” said Williamson, citing Oatly as the most successful plant-based milk on the market. “To date, the base has mattered.”
For Larisha Bernard, who runs Make It Dairy Free, a vegan website, with her husband, Andrew, hearing that NotMilk was meant to mimic dairy left her with questions of her own. “Does that mean GMOs? Does that mean it was created with some obscure thing inside a laboratory?” she said. “We had to do our own research.”
Once she learned how the milk was made, she felt comfortable using it for dipping cookies, or to make creamy sauces such as Alfredo or mac and cheese. “It’s the closest thing that we remember milk tasting like,” said Bernard, who has been vegan for more than two years.
In a side-by-side taste test comparing NotMilk with cow’s milk, the difference was perceptible. Compared to dairy, the NotMilk was slightly beiger in hue and sweeter on both the nose and the mouth, with faint notes of coconut and pineapple. One taster said the flavor reminded her of cow’s milk stirred with Froot Loops, though much less sweet. Texture-wise, it felt like dairy.
The milk had mixed results in coffee. Poured into brews of different roasts and brands, it broke at times and didn’t froth into a thick, silky foam, instead making large bubbles. Muchnick said separation can occur due to the pH in some coffees and recommends using at least 1/3 part NotMilk in coffee. “A squirt might not be enough to stop separation,” he said.
That aside, all four tasters agreed: On its own, NotMilk tasted good – and far more like dairy than other plant milks.
But is it good for you? A common criticism of imitation meats such as the Impossible and Beyond burgers is that they have a comparable amount of the saturated fat in beef and are highly processed; while the likes of Burger King and Dunkin’ added these meats on the menu, Chipotle chief executive Brian Niccol famously passed for that reason.
There isn’t enough data or research on whether imitation milks and burgers are more healthful than the original animal-based product, said Will Bulsiewicz, a gastroenterologist in Charleston, S.C., who advocates for a plant-based diet. He thinks they probably are, but raised concerns about NotMilk being an “ultra-processed food.”
Muchnick disagreed with that characterization: “What is the metric for calling something overly processed? Or processed? Or fresh? Or natural? The industry calls ‘natural’ many things that are not natural.”
Diet and nutrition have long been polarizing, and confusing, subjects – throughout the past few decades, we’ve embraced and shunned fat, gluten, sugar and even carbohydrates. That’s exactly what drew Muchnick to the food industry. A finance major from Santiago, Chile, who spent years playing rugby and eating meat “very intensely,” he was doing an internship at JPMorgan in Hong Kong when he had an epiphany.
“One day, eggs are good for you. Another day, eggs are bad for you,” he said. “Whenever an industry generates so much confusion, it’s because the system is broken.”
The food industry was running on obsolete technology, he thought. Along with partners Karim Pichara Baksai, a computer scientist focused on data science, and Pablo Zamora, a biochemist specializing in plant genomes, he set out to create an A.I.-driven approach to food, feeding information to an algorithm and teaching it what worked. The goal was to create plant-based foods that would remove animals from the equation, without sacrificing flavor.
It took a year and a half to create the algorithm’s base. Now Muchnick, a vegetarian who still dabbles in dairy, says they are prototyping and scaling products in the span of four months – all thanks to the algorithm, which is named Giuseppe after the 16th-century Italian artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who painted portraits melding human features with plants.
The industry isn’t lacking in controversy. Plant milks have had to navigate regulatory challenges around the world, facing pushback from dairy farmers and their supporters. The European Union, where plant-based products can’t label themselves as “oat milk” or “cashew yogurt,” recently withdrew a rule that would have prohibited them from even comparing themselves to dairy after outcry from advocates and consumers. Still, in the United Kingdom, Oatly is labeled as an “oat drink.” Other brands go by “m*lk.”
In Chile, NotCo is facing a lawsuit filed by a dairy farmers union claiming the company vilifies cow’s milk and demanding they stop using images of cows in their packaging and marketing.
Muchnick, who brushed off the lawsuit as a reaction to the dairy industry losing market share, says NotCo has never claimed cow’s milk is bad. It hasn’t encountered similar challenges in the United States, though he wouldn’t be surprised if he did soon: “These things always happen.”
Especially amid NotCo’s rapid growth. Muchnick says the milk is selling “incredibly well” at Whole Foods, where the full price of a half-gallon is $4.99, the same as Horizon Organic’s cow’s milk. (A Whole Foods spokesperson was not able to share specific sales numbers but confirmed that NotMilk is performing well at the retailer.) The company is eyeing expansion toward Canada and Mexico. The goal isn’t to appeal only to vegans and vegetarians; Muchnick said their research indicates 92% of their consumers don’t fit within either of those categories.
“The only way we’re going to move the needle,” he said, “is if we access the mass market.”
Of course, there’s only one way to do that: scribbling out the biggest competitor out there – the cow.