28 March 2023

Astrid ferments plant-based cheese


Cheese is the most exciting food there is – especially if it is made from plants! So thinks Astrid Bonke, who has a bachelor’s degree in Food and Nutrition and has since studied Food Science with a specialisation in dairy. Today, she uses her extensive dairy knowledge to develop plant-based, fermented cheeses in the start-up company Færm.

Astrid Bonke
Astrid Bonke with some of the plant-based cheeses that she currently has aging at the start-up company Færm, where is the Head of Development. A plant-based brie takes just as long to mature as a brie made from cow’s milk. Picture Lene Hundborg Koss

What do you think is special about pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Food and Nutrition at the University of Copenhagen?

 It surprised me how many different topics are covered – how many aspects of food I hadn’t considered at all, and which I suddenly became much more knowledgeable about. And then I thought it was incredibly exciting to advance my knowledge away from cooking and over to some science. I began to appreciate mathematics, physics and statistics in a context of food. It actually felt like something I had always wanted to do but didn’t know how to go about it.

Why did you choose this course in particular?

My father is a dairy engineer and we always talked a lot about cheese at home – and the holidays we went on when I was a kid were to places known for cheese. And because we talked so much about cheese in my family, I took it for granted that it was something everyone knew something about. So, it was a surprise to me when I found out that not everyone at school knew, for example, what whey and rennet are. My father was very fond of science and thought that studying engineering was the only thing to do and during primary school I probably reacted a bit against that and wanted to be a journalist. That is why I applied to upper secondary school with as few science subjects as possible. But then I went on exchange in the United States at a rather bad school, where the only good teacher I had taught science. I was hopelessly behind, but I ended up taking part in an interstate competition and when I came back to Denmark I managed to change my upper secondary school subjects to a science track. Afterwards, I chose to study for a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, as I still did not want to choose the same subject as my father. But it was a bit too abstract for me – I wanted to work with something I could hold in my hands, and I thought that if it has to be tangible, then it must be something with food. I discovered that I had a huge head start when it came to dairy and cheese knowledge and it just kind of took off from there and I ended up having to say thank you to my dad!  

What was most interesting about the education?

We had a raw material oriented course in the bachelor’s programme in Food and Nutrition, which I think was really exciting, where we learned about all the different foods and where I learned that the majority of the world’s caloric intake is in reality based on extremely few raw materials, including corn, wheat and rice. It impressed me and inspired me a lot, and it dawned on me that we are actually quite narrow in our perception of food, that what we use and eat is rather limited, and that there must therefore also be enormous potential for innovation.

And I think that some of the subjects, which perhaps have a reputation for being a bit boring, were exciting – not least food physics. It was a way of looking at food that I hadn’t given much thought to. Newton was brought up in a food context. Statistics was difficult, but super exciting because you could suddenly understand all the data you were presented with. I’m not exactly a genius at math, so it required concentration.

I also really liked the maths course because I could feel that I was getting smarter and went through a personal development where I suddenly understood some things on a deeper level. I have always loved trivia that can be used for all sorts of gatherings, but here was learning that went much deeper. And if you go into food research or production on a large scale, there are many technical things that come into play, i.e., many functional properties in the food, which come into focus, and it ceases to be cooking in the traditional sense. I also found microbiology extremely exciting and here we had a very passionate teacher. And I also like visible results – in microbiology you can grow something that you have suddenly changed completely.



A plant-based cheese must have the same functional properties as a milk-based one, believes Astrid Bonke. At Færm, she develops cheeses using dairy techniques that have been developed for more than 1,000 years – and which are then adapted for plants that have completely different ways of reacting when they are processed than milk.  Picture Lene Hundborg Koss. 

Had you already considered working with plant-based foods at that time?

 During my bachelor’s degree, I was interested in plants, but had not considered it as a career option – on the contrary, I was quickly drawn into dairying. A bit unusually, I had three internships during the education. I had credits from my one year of the bachelor’s in chemistry, which is why I had a block without courses. I didn’t want to just take time off, so I found someone who worked at Chile’s largest dairy, Colun. It was incredibly exciting to do an internship there and I discovered that Denmark is a huge dairy country, whereas dairy does not play the same role at all in Chile. It was my first time at a large dairy. We had only been guests looking through glass windows, and suddenly I was standing there and was part of a place where many tons of cheese were produced every single day. It gave some entirely new perspectives.

My project was to find out why some of their cheeses varied in size and shape. They didn’t quite know how many deviations there were, where in the process the changes happened or how to correct it. Before the cheese has ripened, it is very porous, and it turned out that they had a step that involved a crane where some of the edge from one cheese could slip into the mould of the neighbouring cheese. It happened at a completely different place in the process than they had thought. In addition, I have been in two official internships – one at a small cheese dairy in Jutland and the other at Arla in England.   

The MSc degree in Food Science was about both plants and cheese

Astrid began the master’s programme in Food Science at the University of Copenhagen in the same month that she completed her bachelor’s degree.  

During my degree, I had the courses Cheese Science 1 and 2, where it became extremely exciting. Our teacher had a great passion for camel milk, and we spent a lot of time on that. We also did experiments with horse milk, so suddenly milk was no longer just milk. My passion for cheese blossomed, but at the same time I made sure to take electives that had as much to do with plants as possible.

During my internship, I had started to think quite a lot about our resource consumption. There are many resource links in cheese production: feed, land, transport and animals. An optional course was about plants in the context of consumer science, and here we published an article together with our associate professor. It was very exciting and also hard to get into a process where you end up publishing a scientific article. The article was about barriers to achieving a more plant-based diet, and it was a completely different way of working than I was used to. It’s one thing to make something in a laboratory, but if consumers don’t think my product is nice – then it won’t really amount to anything.

What happened after you became a dairy engineer (which you become after you get the MSc degree in Food Science with the dairy specialisation, ed.)

I was very happy with my education and was actually sad not to be a student anymore. That is why I chose a gentle transition, where I was initially employed as a research assistant with and associate professor specialising in plant proteins at my educational institution, the Department of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen. You will get a little story from my collaboration in the project: Within dairy, there are 1,000 research articles about every little element of the milk, and it was almost a matter of course for me that this knowledge was available. So, one day I asked if we had a table of proteins in a herbal drink and she laughed and replied that we didn’t – we had to find out for ourselves. This is why you create so much that is new in the field of plants. We only know a tiny fraction compared to what we know when it comes to dairy products.

How has it been working with the plant-based products so far?

The first wave of the development of plant-based foods has been about how we can sneak some plant ingredients into some other things, but now there is a focus on the functionalities in the plants – and it is these that we use when, for example, we are making plant-based cheese, as we do at Færm. I am not interested in making a “cheese” from something that doesn’t go through a fermentation, which cheese would otherwise do – something that is perhaps just composed of fat and some starch, so that it looks approximately right and has a somewhat cheese-like consistency, but where the composition and flavour development do not follow. For me, it is about creating completely new, plant-based cheeses that haven’t been seen or tasted before, says Astrid Bonke.


Head of development at Færm Astrid Bonke, linkedin.com/in/astridbonke


Communications officer at UCPH FOOD Lene Hundborg Koss, lene.h.koss@food.ku.dk


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