The growth in demand for plant-based foods is showing no signs of slowing. An impressive 57% of American households purchased plant-based foods in 2020, up from 53% in 2019. According to SPINS data released by the Good Food Institute and the Plant-Based Foods Association (PBFA), plant-based food retail sales were $7 billion in 2020, a 27% growth rate for products that specifically replace animal-based products. Plant-based meat replacers had $1.4 billion in sales, a 45% jump over 2019 numbers, and made up 2.7% of American retail packaged sales in the meat aisle.
Plant-based dairy replacers are no different. In a recent report published by market research firm Packaged Facts, “Dairy & Egg Alternatives: Outlook for Plant-Based & Cell-Cultured Consumer Products,” it was forecast that sales of plant-based dairy and egg products will continue to rise at an average annual rate of 6.0%, reaching $5.2 billion by 2024.
This is an increase from $4.3 billion in estimated sales in 2020, up from $3.9 billion in sales during 2019. The rise in consumer demand for dairy-free products has challenged developers to create ever more impeccable dairy analogs using starches, fibers, hydrocolloids, and proteins in place of the animal-based casein, whey, lactose, and fat.
From its role in cheeseburgers and nachos to tacos and everything in between, cheese is an age-old staple, loved for its rich, melty texture and complex, comforting flavor. Producers of plant-based cheese replacers have long been challenged to create products that live up to the key attributes of an excellent aged cheese. Some plant-based cheese makers are now even mimicking grated and shaved aged cheeses utilizing grains, nuts, seeds, and yeast extracts.
These “shaker” cheeses are typically raw and boast high nutritional content, including omega 3s, protein, and B vitamins. Recognizing that soy and gluten are concerns for some consumers, other cheese analog makers are taking advantage of advances in plant-based milk technologies to make cheeses out of oats, rice, chickpeas, almonds, and other grains, legumes, and nuts.
Rich, fatty nuts and seeds, such as cashews, macadamias, and sunflower seeds, are blended and combined with thickeners such as xanthan gum and tapioca flour, then enhanced with seasonings to create familiar flavors matching Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses. Other developers are leveraging new technology to ferment healthier versions of cheeses with real stretchability to cover for mozzarella and provolone.
Firm cheeses are not the only solid dairy being faked to perfection. Plant-based processed cheese producers now have a phosphate-free option to create the classic gooey, melty, spray-can experience of its dairy-based counterpart. These “free-from” products offer characteristics similar to traditional products; they are spreadable, sprayable, formed into triangular packages, or enjoyed as slices on burgers or in grilled cheese sandwiches.
In more complex formulations, soft cheese analogs made from starches, vegetable fibers, and other plant-based ingredients can replace up to 30%-50% of dairy cheese. They typically can withstand a conventional high-shear process cooker at this rate of use.
According to the latest research from Mintel’s Global New Product Database, plant-based ice cream launches have more than doubled, from 3% in 2016 to 7% in 2020. Vegan ice cream makers have improved quality in the same way makers of vegan versions of cheese have by utilizing new technology and ingredients. Plant-based frozen treats of the past were limited to the technology used to create plant-based milks—made predominantly from soy, almond, and coconut ingredients.
Today, multiple varieties of plant and nut milks are available to the formulator to develop richer tasting frozen treats. However, in traditional dairy-based ice creams and frozen treats, the natural fat particles are equally dispersed throughout the product, providing a full-bodied flavor with a rich mouthfeel consistency.
Maintaining this satisfying mouthfeel in plant-based dairy products can be challenging. But technology has improved here as well. Plant-based milk colloids are now available that can provide the fatty mouthfeel one expects from high-end ice cream. Clean-label starches, such as potato or tapioca, can be combined with thickening agents such as pectin to create the characteristic texture consumers expect from high-quality ice cream.
Thick, creamy, and tangy plant-based sour cream and yogurt can be made to look and taste close to the authentic versions. Most vegan yogurts and sour creams are nut-based, utilizing either coconut or cashew milk. These products often are thickened with tapioca starch, xanthan gum, or similar ingredients, then fermented and inoculated with billions of probiotics, resulting in a spoonable, dippable, cultured product.
Because both of these product types are fairly simple in design, choosing the right ingredients to create clean and true flavors can be necessary. Utilizing flavor maskers, flavor enhancers, and bitter blockers can help mask any undesired flavors from certain plant-based ingredients.
Most developers prefer to take a natural route when masking flavors. In plant-based yogurt, citric acid, lactic acid, fruit (as purées, preserves, whole fruit, pieces, dried fruit, powders, or concentrates) or sweeteners can be added to mask off notes, and traditional yogurt cultures offer recognizable flavors. It also is possible to add dairy flavors to enhance the dairy notes.
Some exciting developments are on the horizon for plant-based dairy innovators. Next-generation plant-based milks that mimic the taste of real dairy are on their way in early 2022, increasing a developer’s chance of creating an authentic dairy-like experience from a plant-based dairy product. Developers with expertise in dairy are leading the field, deconstructing dairy attributes and sensory experiences. They can then recreate them by blending familiar, high-quality plant-based ingredients to craft new plant-based products with more dairy-like qualities.
Fermentation will continue to dominate plant-based dairy innovation, with multiple companies clamoring for shelf space with proprietary fermentation processes that boast the flavors, textures, functionality, and nutritional value qualities of animal-based dairy but lack the traditional cholesterol, GMOs, or lactose.
Most of these processes create an animal-free whey or casein protein identical to the animal-derived versions. This process uses less land and less water and emits fewer greenhouse gas emissions in order to make plant-based items that provide almost the same organoleptic experience as animal-based dairy products.
—Regular contributor Anne-marie Ramo is a Seattle-based research chef and food writer with more than 25 years of experience in flavor development. She was director of culinary development for Revolution Foods Inc., executive chef of Fork in the Road Foods, LLC, and executive chef for Aidell’s Sausage Co. Read more of her articles at www.preparedfoods.com. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The New Whey
One major new development in creating dairy-free ice cream analogs is that of non-animal whey protein. The fermentation-derived protein is almost indistinguishable from real dairy in taste tests. This new whey can replace milk and cream while still producing “milky” flavors and textures. It’s also eco-friendly, using less water and land than dairy milk does to produce.