Brave Robot is a unique brand of ice cream in that it’s made using milk proteins that come from a fungus rather than a cow. Confused? Well, don’t be – it’ll all become clear in a moment. Brave Robot is the ice cream maker but the vegan milk protein is produced by another company, Perfect Day. The goal of Berkeley-based Perfect Day has been to replicate dairy by engineering a fungus to produce the proteins that are found in milk (casein and whey proteins, mainly).
So, Perfect Day are offering a vegan version of milk (basically) that’s much closer to cow’s milk than milk made from oats, almond, coconut, etc. Several companies are starting to use Perfect Day’s milk protein as an ingredient:
- Brave Robot vegan ice cream, which I’ll get to in a moment.
- Modern Kitchen vegan cream cheese, which is not on supermarket shelves yet.
- Smitten ice cream, which has several liquid nitrogen equipped stores around the Bay Area.
- Nick’s ice cream, low carb and keto-friendly.
- Graeter’s ice cream, made in Ohio, interesting flavors.
Note that Brave Robot and Modern Kitchen brands are both produced by The Urgent Company, which was created by Prefect Day but now runs as an independent company.
Anyway… on to the Brave Robot ice creams that I tried.
Brave Robot ice cream – review
I bought three different flavors of Brave Robot ice cream from the Grocery Outlet for $1.99 each. Folks were surprised to see the ice cream at these prices – friends of mine (biotech enthusiasts) bought ice cream from Perfect Day when it was first released, at a cost of $60 for three pints. These days, you can buy Brave Robot ice cream for around $6 per pint (or $2 at the Grocery Outlet).
The flavors that I bought were Blueberry Pie, Vanilla N’ Cookies, and Hazelnut Chocolate Chunk – all of which sounded appealing. I’ll cut to the chase – there was something about the ice cream that didn’t quite work for me. It wasn’t terrible by any means – it’s actually pretty close to rich dairy ice cream – but there’s something about it that I didn’t love. I couldn’t pin down what wasn’t quite right – it seemed to be a subtle issue with both taste and texture. I’m not the only one who thought this – friends who tried it picked up on the same thing.
Here’s what Ryan Pandya, CEO and co-founder of Perfect Day, said in a Medium article introducing The Urgent Company and Brave Robot:
Call me a cynic, but I don’t think the next pea-protein-slurry is going to suddenly deliver on the creaminess and delight of real dairy ice cream.
Well, au contraire, Ryan – I found Ripple Foods’ chocolate ice cream (which is made from pea protein) to have a better texture than Brave Robot’s ice cream, so I’d disagree on this. I would definitely repurchase Ripple ice cream over Brave Robot.
Having said that, I’d recommend trying Brave Robot ice cream if you are a fan of conventional ice cream and looking to cut down on dairy and/or reduce your footprint. I expect that the formulation will evolve and future versions of Brave Robot will be better. I hope so, as Perfect Day’s vegan milk protein offers some large advantages over dairy, from a sustainability perspective (and animal welfare too, of course). I’ll deal with the ethical evaluation soon – first let’s take a look at the ingredients.
Brave Robot ice cream – Ingredients and Nutrition Facts
My favorite of the three ice creams that I tried was Hazelnut Chocolate Chunk, so I’m going to show ingredients and nutritional info for that flavor.
Brave Robot, Hazelnut Chocolate Chunk – Ingredients:
Water, sugar, coconut oil, ground hazelnuts, sunflower oil, non-animal whey protein, contains less than 2% of maltodextrin, cocoa processed with alkali, natural flavor, calcium potassium phosphate citrate, salt, disodium phosphate, carob bean gum, mono and diglycerides, sunflower lecithin, cornstarch.
So much saturated fat and sugar! It’s 24% sugar by weight, making it the sweetest vegan ice cream that I’ve come across. As mentioned on previous posts, vegan ice creams do have a key nutritional advantage over most conventional dairy ice creams (e.g., Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs) – no trans fats. Protein content is about the same as conventional dairy ice cream – 5 grams per serving – except that it’s protein that’s made in a fungus by Perfect Day.
Perfect Day’s whey protein is produced in a genetically engineered fungus that’s grown in a fermentor, using technology similar to that for producing insulin or vegetarian rennet. As they only produce the milk protein, it’s lactose-free.
Sustainability at Perfect Day and Brave Robot
Here are a few thoughts before I get to the ethical rating for Brave Robot ice cream. Although Perfect Day and Brave Robot (The Urgent Company) are separate entities, they were founded by the same people and it would make sense for their values to align. After all, Perfect Robot is currently the flagship product for Perfect Day’s vegan milk protein. Perfect Day reports on a life cycle assessment (LCA) that compares the impact of its vegan product to dairy protein. Here are some key findings from the LCA study:
Perfect Day’s numbers align pretty well with the footprints of vegan products that I’ve examined previously, such as Quorn (another fungal product) and Beyond Meat. Then, switching over to Brave Robot, I found that the company is also conducting an LCA for a finished pint of ice cream, with a current number of 0.76 kg CO2 equivalents per pint.
Brave Robot also report on packaging for the ice cream: the container is made with Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certified paperboard and lined with sugarcane-derived, petroleum-free liner. So far so good, but what I found disappointing was that there’s no reporting on the main ingredients: sugar, coconut oil, ground hazelnuts, sunflower oil and cocoa.
All of these ingredients come with issues from sustainability, social impact, and/or human rights perspectives. You’re probably aware of some of them from general news coverage and maybe others like neonics (insecticides used on conventional sunflowers) if you’re a GSP reader. It seems strange to not source ingredients in a way that matches the ethics of the Perfect Day ingredient (e.g., organic / regenerative, fair trade). Plus, take a look at this:
We use sustainably sourced palm oil in two of our flavor inclusions (Buttery Pecan and Raspberry White Truffle); all other flavors are palm oil free. It is RSPO certified, which is the global standard for sustainable palm oil.
If you’ve read my GSP post on palm oil certifications, you’ll know that there are several levels of RSPO certification, and the weakest of them is indeed very weak. Brave Robot doesn’t state to which RSPO level its palm oil is certified. Generally speaking, RSPO has been disappointment as an enforcer of sustainable palm oil, the POIG is better and Palm Done Right is best. I avoid all palm oil products other than those certified by Palm Done Right, if at all possible.
It seems incongruous for Brave Robot to be so slapdash about sourcing a key ingredient like palm oil, particularly when the product’s main selling point is sustainability.
Ethical rating for Brave Robot ice cream
This hasn’t been a straightforward decision, because there’s a mix of positives and negatives here. Hopefully the negatives can be addressed in the future. I’m rating Brave Robot ice cream 3.5 Green Stars based on the following points:
- All products are vegan, benefiting animals, habitats and climate.
- Perfect Day’s whey protein production reduces water use up to 99%, greenhouse gas emissions up to 97% and non-renewable energy use up to 60% compared to conventional dairy-based whey.
- Brave Robot’s ice cream tubs are made from FSC-certified paperboard with a sugarcane-derived, petroleum-free liner.
- A pint of Brave Robot ice cream has a modest carbon footprint of 0.76 kg CO2 equivalents.
- Palm oil is used in two ice cream flavors (Buttery Pecan and Raspberry White Truffle) with the only information provided that it is RSPO certified. There are at least 4 levels within RSPO certification, ranging from mediocre to very weak – none is adequate, IMO, and Brave Robot doesn’t state which level their palm oil is certified at.
- No information is provided on sourcing of the other ingredients or the impact off the company beyond the carbon footprint.
- Room for Improvement: Sunflower oil should be organic to avoid neonics.
- Room for Improvement: Sugar, coconut, hazelnuts and cacao should be fair trade, or equivalent, and sustainably farmed.
Summary scores (out of 5) for Brave Robot ice cream:
- 2.5 gold stars for quality and value.
- 3.5 green stars for social and environmental impact, for the flavors shown above (and a lower rating for the flavors that contain palm oil).
If you have a different opinion, please share your rating! Until next time, stay safe : )