Oxford Brookes University-based company developing a vegan cheese people will want to eat
A challenge for thousands of people choosing to take part in Veganuary (going vegan throughout January) is finding a vegan cheese that’s tasty enough to eat.
The team at Fermtech, a company based in Oxford Brookes University’s Enterprise Centre, are working on a solution - a vegan cheese using protein from fungi grown from spent grains from a local brewery.
Andy Clayton, the founder of Fermtech, said: “Those of us who have tried vegan cheese can attest that currently its taste and textures really aren’t quite there yet.
“One way of understanding consumer behaviour is comparing plant based milks to vegan cheeses. Plant based milks are pretty good and account for 15% of global milk sales. Vegan cheeses account for just over 1% of the market.
“It’s not that people don’t want it or there isn’t demand. There is a great business opportunity if you can figure out how to get the flavour, colour and texture right. The vegan cheeses currently available simply don’t taste very good. Producers are struggling to replicate what the protein does in dairy cheese.”
Producers and researchers are approaching the problem in different ways, using cashew nuts or yeast. Fermtech is working on a solution using a fungal protein rather than a plant-based protein.
Andy said: “In dairy cheese, proteins come from caseins and there is a certain structure in how the proteins stick to each other and how they react if you warm them up. Most plant proteins don’t react in the same way and it’s hard to produce cheese textures.
“Another thing that isn’t talked about is colour - people expect cheddar to be a light yellow, but a lot of proteins aren’t that colour.
“We are experimenting with a brown cheese from Norway. It’s very niche, but the colour is a trade-off for a better tasting vegan cheese.
“The fungal protein we are using has a flavour profile closer to cheese. A lot of cheeses contain fungi - the white crust around Camembert and the blue in Stilton are both fungi.
“In the next few years we’ll see a lot of much better proteins coming out and we hope ours will be one of them.”
Andy says replacing traditional dairy with vegan alternatives is important because of the environmental impact of traditional food production.
He said: “2023 was the hottest year on record and 2024 is going to be even hotter. We are going into a very difficult and traumatic period of history for all of us and more needs to be done. Veganuary is a great initiative because it helps raise awareness of ways in which we can change our food production systems.
“People don’t realise this but food production accounts for a large proportion of greenhouse gases. COP 28 was the first COP where there was a clear and explicit decision around food and agriculture and that was really welcome.
“I hope 2024 is the year where there is much more focus from people on diets and the changes we will have to take in order to halt this crisis. It’s not a looming crisis, it’s happening.”
Fermtech was recently awarded £50,000 grants from both Innovate UK and the Oxfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership as well as being voted the partnership’s Most Innovative Company.
Oxford Brookes Enterprise Centre
Professor Simonetta Manfredi, Director of Research and Innovation at Oxford Brookes University, said: "Fermtech is one of an array of new businesses that are using the state-of-the-art facilities in our Enterprise Centre to develop products that will have a real impact on society. Fermtech's work is especially important for helping the UK hit net Zero climate goals. I am excited to see how their plant-based cheese products develop."
Companies based at Oxford Brookes University’s Enterprise Centre benefit from being close to the university community at the heart of the Headington Campus. Some of the companies employ Oxford Brookes University students as research assistants, giving them real-life work experience alongside their studies.
The centre gives companies access to office spaces, labs and facilities as well as expertise and professional networks. The Enterprise Centre is supported by Oxford Brookes University alongside funding secured by OxLEP through the Government’s Local Growth Fund. The project aims to support the creation of 15 start-up companies and around 70 jobs over a period of three years.