Researchers looking at new proteins and innovations in non-dairy beverages, cheeses and ice creams. Most consumers buying plant-based also buy milk, says VP of Danone. ‘They’re not making a choice. They want both’
The dairy alternative industry is looking beyond soy and almond to new protein ingredients, including oats and peas.
Industry executives and researchers told recent plant-based food summits in Saskatoon and Calgary that there is room for innovation in non-dairy beverages, yogurts, cheeses and ice creams.
“We’re looking at pea proteins. We need to overcome some taste barriers with pea proteins but that’s an emerging place for us,” Jeremy Oxley, VP marketing for Danone Canada told the Bridge2Food summit in Calgary in June.
“Oat is another place for us. We certainly see the world moving beyond almond.”
Danone owns the Silk brand, a popular line of almond-based dairy alternatives.
Academic and industry researchers are working on a number of different milk alternatives, looking for the perfect combination of protein source and processing technology to mimic dairy functionality such as solubility, ability to gel, creaminess and, in the case of cheese, stretchability.
The market is growing rapidly. Plant-based milk alternative annual sales in 2018 increased nine per cent in the U.S., to $1.6 billion, according to Neilsen statistics. Other dairy food alternatives, such as yogurt, cheese and ice cream, increased 50 per cent to $697 million in sales.
Brands once associated with conventional dairy products are diversifying into the plant space. Danone bought WhiteWave, a plant-food firm, two years ago and has learned a lot in the plant-protein space, said Oxley.
“Eighty to 90 per cent of households that buy plant-based beverages also buy milk,” he told Bridge2Food delegates. “They’re not making a choice. They want both.”
Speakers at the summit underlined the growing acceptance of dairy alternatives.
Greg Paul, DuPont Nutrition and Biosciences marketing director, said the consumer wants the alternatives to taste good, but not necessarily to taste like dairy. He said oat milk is showing the most growth in terms of consumer trends in the sector.
Research into the use of oats, pea protein and faba beans is underway in Canadian institutions.
At the University of Alberta, Lingyun Chen, a Canadian research chair in plant protein, is working with the functionality of oats and faba beans.
At the Northern Institute of Technology, research chef Maynard Kolskog works with companies to develop prototype products, including ice creams and cheeses.
He said a client asked the institute to work on a fermented oat cheese. NAIT produced a blue cheese alternative.
“We had really good success. Textures are good. It looked like cheese. It cut like cheese. It was fermented and the flavour was really good and it actually had aging potential as well. We inoculated it with the blue cheese mold and also probiotics for a complete fermentation product.”
NAIT has produced cashew cheese but the costs are high on such on a product, added Kolskog.
“I think we can make something just as good with an Alberta crop, that’s much, much cheaper, and I think that’s exciting and interesting.”
There are challenges for alternative dairy production being explored by industrial researchers.
Matt Yurgec, senior associate of dairy applications for Ingredion, a major U.S. food ingredient manufacturer, outlined issues such as powderiness, chalkiness and a tendency to separate that all have to be overcome.
A major issue is also protein content, typically lower for plant based than dairy, he told Saskatoon summit delegates.
“This is especially true for cheese,” said Yurgec. “Most (plant protein) products on the market today are zero to one grams of protein per serving. Dairy is typically five to seven grams per serving.”
And marketing can be a challenge as well.
Oxley said given the space in the market is the flexitarian consumer, the customer who is open to trying to plant-based foods but not giving up on animal protein, the best tactic is for products to be marketed side by side in the stores.
Canadian regulations add a further wrinkle.
“The USDA allows beverage manufacturers to use the term milk,” said Oxley. “So you see almond milk, soy milk, rice milk, oat milk. It’s an easy reference point for consumers.”
In Canada dairy alternatives can’t use the term milk, so they use beverage, which can be confusing for the customer.
Oxley said familiar brands, such as Oikos yogurt, are now producing non-dairy alternatives, which helps with consumer comfort levels.
Danone has a big dairy business and there is a balance to be found in terms of milk brands and dairy farmers, said Oxley. He added that the firm is planning on a lot of its growth coming from the plant-based side of the business.
“Our story is clear. We’re not a dairy company. We’re a food and beverage company. We’re going to offer healthy products in both sides of the business.”
Kathy Kerr, a freelance journalist, covered the protein summits in Saskatoon and Calgary