Remember connect-the-dot pictures? With each dot and each new line—a picture starts to emerge.
Here’s a case where so many statistics and consumer insights speak to the shape—and market share—of the plant-based milk market. It’s a market Danone North America has pursued since its 2017 purchase of WhiteWave Foods, parent to the Silk brand of bean- and nut-based milk alternatives.
Danone NA’s Research & Innovation team continues to connect the dots and it forecasts even more market opportunity—enough to warrant substantial new product development. That led to several years of research and development behind Silk Nextmilk, which debuted January 2022 nationwide in Whole Fat and Reduced Fat varieties.
Silk Nextmilk will be one of six noteworthy new products showcased this August in Prepared Foods’ Spirit of Innovation Awards.
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The plant-based product’s taste, texture and nutrition made it a 2021-2002 Prepared Foods Spirit of Innovation winner (“Best New Retail Beverage”) and it will be recognized this August 9 from 11.a.m.-1 p.m. EST in an industrywide webcast awards ceremony.
“Silk is a longstanding leader in the plant-based beverage category, and Danone North America’s research and innovation team, brought creative passion, science, and expertise to the creation of Silk Nextmilk,” says Takoua Debeche, Danone NA chief research and innovation officer. “Finding ingredients that could capture the taste and texture of dairy milk—without any of the dairy—was the main challenge our team faced when researching and crafting Silk Nextmilk.”
Opportunity: Connecting the Dots
Data from the Good Food Institute (GFI) show plant-based milk dollar sales grew 20% from 2019 to 2020 and 27% from 2018 to 2020. GFI estimated the plant-based milk category at $2.5 billion, and figured it totaled 15% of all dollar sales of retail milk in 2020.
For a big picture perspective, Danone NA researchers cite IRI Total US MULO Sales data showing that 91% percent of households still buy traditional dairy, while 43% of households buy plant-based beverages. That speaks to market opportunity. And in an October 2021 interview with Fast Company, John Starkey, president of Danone NA’s plant-based food and beverage group, noted, “From our research, we saw that there were about 53% of people who … wouldn’t purchase plant-based beverages because of their taste.”
Of course, Starkey’s comment speaks to continued opportunity (a market gap) around product performance.
Back to the Basics: Taste & Texture
In the same Fast Company article, Debeche noted, “The first step was to learn about and deconstruct the classic dairy drinking experience—particularly the key nutritional factors of dairy, the molecular composition of dairy, but also the very iconic sensory elements.”
“The texture and the mouthfeel is actually driven by the milkfat particle size,” she said. “Dairy milk has a very specific fat melting curve, and that fat melting curve is a result of the unique saturated fats found in dairy milk.”
Debeche noted that Silk Nextmilk researchers partnered with company’s own dairy experts to reconstruct classic milk properties with plants that mirrored the different components of dairy’s flavor curve and mouthfeel. She said Danone R&I team members tasted and rejected hundreds of plant-based ingredients. Moreover, Silk even engaged a staff neuroscientist—someone who studies the emotional connection—to discuss what consumers would want from the product.
“We really had to get rid of all the plant-like notes so people could fully access the memory of milk,” Debeche told Fast Company. She added that the flavor was challenging to replicate because it’s a complex blend of sweetness, creaminess, and less appealing attributes like sourness, bitterness, and even a hint of sulfur.
In the end, rather than relying on a single, plant-based ingredient, Danone ended up incorporating oatmilk and a “plant-based blend” that also includes coconut and soy. Product developers also added nutrients. Silk Nextmilk is an excellent source of six key nutrients also found in dairy—including calcium, vitamin D, vitamin A, B12, riboflavin and phosphorus. Additionally, Silk Nextmilk offers 4g (8% DV) of plant-based protein per serving.