Change Foods is two years away from having a product on the marketplace, but its website is full of carefully curated information about what it will be.
The site is full of pictures of cheese — stretching out, melting on pizza, tacos and sandwiches, and being enjoyed by smiling consumers. It has pictures of nature, with sweeping vistas. There's a photo of a cute calf.
Text on the site lays out Change Foods’ core principles and manufacturing process in simple terms: "We (re)create real dairy foods that delight the taste buds, nourish people and sustain the planet, by using the magic of microbes instead of animals."
"The magic of microbes" is how Change Foods explains its process for creating cheese products using dairy proteins made through precision fermentation. While fermentation has been used for centuries to create food and drink like sauerkraut and beer, precision fermentation is a newer process that involves encoding microbes with information to engineer a protein typically produced by an animal, and producing the protein in a fermentation tank. Change Foods uses microbes, including those in yeast, that contain sequences to make a selection of dairy proteins identical to those that come from milking cows. The only difference is the origin.
Irina Gerry, the company’s chief marketing officer, is concentrating on how to tell that story so consumers understand what it is when the first product arrives on shelves.
"The technological capabilities are outpacing our linguistic framework and our understanding of what these things are," she said. "...Very much a part of my job is to think about and understand: How do we bridge that gap in the way that’s least confusing and most easily understood?"
This linguistics issue is not limited to precision fermentation. As consumers become more interested in knowing the story behind what they eat, companies that create next-generation products need to both explain the science and present a desirable product. Makers of cell-based, fermented, plant-based and tech-heavy products have been busily rebranding, launching PR campaigns and working through consumer research to spread their message to potential consumers.
"The technological capabilities are outpacing our linguistic framework and our understanding of what these things are."
Chief marketing officer, Change Foods
Few products in this realm are currently on the market, but Dan O’Connell, founder and CEO of Foodmix Marketing Communications, said that now is the time for these companies to start talking about them.
"They're starting early with the conversations," O'Connell said. "... [Companies are] already identifying, before they're ready to formulate, who the influencers are. They’re beginning to share and have dialogues, and then as they get closer to market, they're continuing those conversations. ...Every step of the way they're communicating, but they're also listening and learning."
What is this product?
At Gerry's previous job as senior brand manager for Silk and So Delicious at Danone, explaining the alternative dairy products she worked with was relatively simple.
Now, it’s not that easy. Although most consumers actually have firsthand experience with precision fermentation — it’s how most rennet used to make cheese has been produced for more than two decades — consumers think more about the milk in cheese than the rennet that is vital in making it cheese.
While there is no universally accepted language for these ingredients, Gerry said that the handful of companies in the space describe them as "animal-free." Perfect Day, the only company with products on the market, lists "animal-free milk" as the first ingredient in pints of its ice cream made by its affiliated CPG manufacturer The Urgent Company.
"The challenge for us now is to make sure that we’re aggregating and coalescing around common language, but also that we are seeding that and including a framework for people in the broader universe," Gerry said. "So, do people understand that 'plant-based' is unique and different from ‘animal-free,’ that’s unique and different from ‘cultivated.'?"
Many companies in these alternative protein spaces are truly inventing them. Eat Just pioneered plant-based eggs with its Just Egg brand, and debuted the first cell-based chicken with its Good Meat product. At the virtual Future Food-Tech conference in June, Tom Rossmeissl, head of global marketing, said that it’s important for descriptions on packages, menus and in marketing to clearly and accurately tell consumers what the product is.
Terminology needs to be descriptive and truthful, he said, "so if a consumer sees it on the shelf, they're able to understand and become educated about what the product is," Rossmeissl said.
On the website for Good Meat, consumers can scroll through a detailed description of the process for making cell-based meat, which involves selecting animal cells to produce, feeding them a growth medium of nutrients in a bioreactor so they grow and divide, and harvesting them to become finished products. The site also explains how cultured cells can become meat products by growing them on a natural scaffolding, 3D printing them into shapes, using extrusion to improve the texture, and molding them into a desired form.
Rossmeissl said it’s important that consumers know exactly how the products are made. Good Meat chicken is currently only available through limited foodservice venues in Singapore, and he said the company is using the tech explanation in its marketing there.
Nicki Briggs, vice president of corporate communications for Perfect Day, said her company's products are not a new entrant — they are an entirely new category. Nomenclature has always been a challenge, since leading up to product launches, all consumer research came through describing a type of product people had not yet seen or imagined.
Perfect Day is an ingredient provider — although The Urgent Company, which is one CPG company currently selling products made with Perfect Day's proteins, is affiliated with it. In this role, Perfect Day doesn't have much control over the messaging that individual brands put forward about their products, Briggs said.
But for consumers who see the Perfect Day logo on a product and want to know more, the company has created an online Knowledge Base that answers commonly asked questions, and has blog posts about its technology, how the proteins work and should be labeled, and sustainability issues. Briggs said the information on the Knowledge Base came from listening to consumers. The company plans to continue adding information as new issues arise and products hit shelves.
"[Companies are] already identifying, before they're ready to formulate, who the influencers are. They’re beginning to share and have dialogues, and then as they get closer to market, they're continuing those conversations. ...Every step of the way they're communicating, but they're also listening and learning."
Founder and CEO, Foodmix Marketing Communications
Transparency is one of Perfect Day's key issues, she said, and likens the communication process to a funnel.
"The grand majority of consumers kind of sit at the top of the funnel where they want to know it tastes good, they want it to be convenient, it needs to be the right price, and if it checks those core boxes, they're really open to trying it," Briggs said. "And then there are some consumers who want to go a little deeper in the funnel, and they might be curious about the process, or they might be curious about precision fermentation — and just given the diversity in terms of awareness level, want to learn more. We really want to make all of the information available and accessible for anyone that wants to access it."
Nature's Fynd, which uses biomass fermentation to create meat and dairy analogs, has been tweaking its communication approach in the nearly 10 years since the company was started.
Nature's Fynd was initially known as Sustainable Bioproducts. Neither the company name nor its website — full of pictures of volcanoes, geysers, mountains, rivers and uninviting bright orange lakes — seemed to belong to a food company. But as a product launch has drawn closer, the company changed its name and entire image. Karuna Rawal, chief marketing officer at Nature’s Fynd, said at the Future Food-Tech conference in June that the company’s origin story has stayed at the center of its marketing.
Nature’s Fynd website opens with a video telling how a team of scientists on a NASA-funded expedition in Yellowstone National Park to research organisms that could live in extreme environments found a fungus that is a complete protein. The company spent the past several years working to turn it into scalable food and drink products through its fermented protein known as Fy.
At its site, Nature's Fynd brands its products as “food for optimists.” And it offers opportunities to dive into what Fy is.
"It's really what the consumer walks away with at an emotional level that's going to be critical for us," Rawal said on the panel.
While Nature’s Fynd first launched direct-to-consumer "breakfast bundles" of Fy-based sausage patties and cream cheese early this year, a slow retail launch began this month, offering the company a chance to see what consumers think of its product and messaging.
Nature’s Fynd isn’t the only alternative protein company to undergo a rebrand as it developed products. Memphis Meats, the first company founded with the purpose of creating cultured meat, completely rebranded itself in May. The six-year-old company, which plans to debut products in the U.S. at the end of the year, changed its name to Upside Foods.
Company officials said the reason for the rebrand was to shift the focus to the consumer. The name Memphis Meats paid tribute to both the barbecue culture in Memphis, Tennessee, and the scientific innovation culture of the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis. But this doesn’t necessarily speak to the impression the company wants consumers to have of its product or of cell-based meat in general.
"When it comes to what we're doing, we're basically making meat with only upside," Maria Occarina Macedo, Upside’s director of brand and creative, said in an interview at the time of the name change. "There's no downside to what we're doing. There's an upside for the environment, for health, for the animals."
"We really want to make all of the information available and accessible for anyone that wants to access it."
Vice president of corporate communications, Perfect Day
At a cursory glance, Upside Foods’ website could be mistaken for that of a traditional chicken company that uses more sustainable practices. Right now, it features mostly pictures of the company's chicken, and has very little that digs deep into the science.
Rebranding for the sake of making the product easier to explain to the consumer is not limited to the alternative protein space. DouxMatok, which created a sugar-based sweetener that tastes the same with 40% less, calls its product Incredo Sugar, and brand it as "Real Happy Sugar." Liat Cinamon, DouxMatok’s vice president for business development, said that this branding tells consumers the product actually is sugar — an important message, since alternative sweeteners may make consumers less likely to purchase products. It also can communicate that there is less sugar in the product without a “low sugar” label claim.
"The message is, 'Yes, it is sugar — based on real sugar — but also the Real Happy Sugar might be better for your health,' " Cinamon said in a previous interview.
What the research says
What do consumers think of all of these labels, terminology, educational materials, online campaigns and product names? It's hard to say.
Most of these products are still in their development phase. With the exception of the ice cream products made from Perfect Day’s animal-free dairy proteins, nothing is widely on the market yet.
Remaking something familiar through technology is something that consumers might not understand off the bat, said Foodmix’s O’Connell.
"There's a consumer journey here that is complicated," he said. "Many of these things aren’t clear. You’ve got a few categories of technology."
Terminology is important. Spoonshot analyzed the way consumers talk about some of these technologies on social media in a study prepared for the Future Food-Tech conference this summer. It’s clear that many consumers don’t link protein to technology at all — just 0.2% of conversations about protein mention food technology or food science, the report states.
While conversations about different types of food produced through fermentation or cell culturing have grown on social media, the total number remain small. The most talked-about term — "cultured meat" — was only in just over 0.14% of analyzed posts at its peak in late 2019. The most talked about term today, “animal-free,” has seen its popularity grow 35% from June 2020 to June 2021.
Although "animal-free" is becoming the preferred term for companies in the precision fermentation space, Change Foods’ Gerry said there is no formal agreement for them to try out that language. She characterized it as a “softer launch,” in which companies use the language in their own messaging and take note of consumer responses. They all will compare notes and work together to further tweak the best way to talk about the products they are making.
"Involving the stakeholders is really important, and I think not being declarative invites more of that conversation," Gerry said. "...Nobody has the right answer. It's going to be shaped as we go out into the world and in reality starts to actually hit the shelves."
"It's really what the consumer walks away with at an emotional level that's going to be critical for us."
Chief marketing officer, Nature's Fynd
In the meantime, companies are doing research to gauge consumer sentiment toward their products. About 65% of Americans said they would be willing to try cheese made with dairy proteins that don’t come from animals, according to a survey from precision fermentation company Formo and the University of Bath. Survey participants read a synopsis about a company that was about to launch an animal-free dairy cheese and a description of how the cheese was made before answering questions.
Eat Just worked with a consulting firm on similar research on cell-based chicken and found that nearly seven in 10 U.S. consumers would be willing to substitute it for animal-derived meat.
In a session at Future Food-Tech, Uma Valeti, co-founder and CEO of Upside Foods, cited independent peer-reviewed research that showed two-thirds of Americans are ready to eat cultured meat, and a third of them would be ready to purchase it as their only source of meat. For a segment just getting its start, Valeti said those numbers are encouraging. He noted that research has also shown that as consumers understand more about the segment, adoption will increase.
"I'm very excited about the signal we're seeing even at this early stage, and I think it's only going to continue to grow," he said at the session. "When consumers start understanding the benefits and the upside of what this field can bring, I think it's going to be one of those pillars that will anchor the next food paradigm."
Past studies have shown that terminology and time make a huge difference. A 2018 study asking consumers if they were interested in buying "clean meat" — an industry term for cell-based meat that has gone out of favor — found just 27% would. Earlier that year, an online survey found 40% of U.S. residents would be happy to eat "cultured meat." And a 2019 study in Frontiers in Nutrition reported 65% of Americans would be willing to try "cultured meat," with half willing to buy it regularly.
Regardless, many of the people talking about cell-based meat or items made from precision fermentation on social media seem to know a lot about the space and are not general consumers. According to Spoonshot, 37.1% of all of the conversations about cell-based meat also contain references to more scientific terminology that average consumers probably wouldn’t be discussing — including "cellular agriculture," precision or biomass fermentation and biotechnology. And more than a third of these conversations call the products “clean meat,” which means they’re probably passionate advocates for the nascent space.
Briggs said Perfect Day is seeing consumer behavior line up with research the company conducted prior to product launches. Its hands-on research started with Perfect Day's extremely limited offering of ice cream, which used the company's own branding, in 2019. This gave Perfect Day a chance to hear what consumers thought about its product. Now, the company has about a year of real-time data from actual products — including deep social media data.
However, just because Perfect Day's previous research into consumer preferences, concerns and language is being validated through sales and social channels, it doesn't mean the current language and positioning are unequivocally the best, she said.
"We're really open to working with partners who want to test how they message this and try other terms, because we don't necessarily think there's only one way to talk to consumers about something new," Briggs said. "...We just want to make sure that whatever phrases and words they're putting in front of consumers, it's all driving toward making sure that we're being accurate and transparent, we're ensuring safe consumption and that we're not confusing the consumer, right?"
A regulatory minefield?
For any food product, less-than-accurate labeling can lead to trouble.
According to an analysis from law firm Perkins Coie, 110 lawsuits were filed last year accusing food products of being falsely labeled in some way. This category represented half of the record-high number of class action lawsuits filed against the industry in 2020, the report said.
And while there are not many products on the market yet, companies are trying to navigate laws that are already in place governing labeling. Many of these are rather vague. There are no overriding federal laws about labeling of protein alternatives.
"When consumers start understanding the benefits and the upside of what this field can bring, I think it's going to be one of those pillars that will anchor the next food paradigm."
CEO and co-founder, Upside Foods
Under the First Amendment, courts are in favor of more, rather than less, commercial free speech, said Bruce Silvergrade, an attorney specializing in federal food labeling and safety at OFW Law, at a July webinar sponsored by The Food Institute.
Some states have taken labeling laws for alternative proteins into their own hands. Many of these laws target plant-based products, though several states had passed laws about cell-based meat labeling prior to last year. Those laws may all be preempted; the USDA plans to put a labeling regime in place for cell-based meat, and is accepting comments on how products should be labeled — and even if they should be given their own federally regulated standards of identity.
Congress has been relatively silent on how to regulate labeling on alternative proteins, and some companies in the plant-based sector have seen many state-level restrictive labeling laws turn into legal battles. Without many food tech products widely available to consumers, there haven't been lawsuits filed about their labeling, but considering the litigious nature of this area, they could be coming.
In the webinar, Silverglade said that some Congressional intent could be gleaned from looking at the Appropriation Committee’s report on the FDA's 2022 fiscal year budget. The report indicates the committee encourages FDA to provide labeling clarity on plant-based foods that use traditional meat, dairy and egg — especially relating to those with labels having clear disclosures, including plant-based, vegetarian or vegan.
"It seems to go to the idea that if there's a clear disclosure — that a plant-based burger, or a vegetarian milk product or a vegan egg — is in fact labeled as such with a clear disclosure, that would seem to give some indication that’s the way out of this morass," Silverglade said.
Clear disclosures are important, but Change Foods’ Gerry stressed that foods created by precision fermentation could have another layer of labeling issues to deal with. While plant-based dairy is made from plants to look, taste and behave like products from cows, dairy created through precision fermentation is actual dairy, just not produced by a cow.
"The biggest 'watch out' or things we want to communicate to consumers is that if they're allergic to dairy, they will be allergic to animal-free food, because they're made with the exact same proteins," Gerry said.
There have already been issues with precision fermentation products being lumped into the plant-based category. Earlier this year, a reporter from Food Navigator tweeted a photo of Brave Robot ice cream made with Perfect Day’s fermented dairy proteins in a grocery store freezer with "Plant-Based" shelf tags. Plant Based Foods Association founder Michele Simon wrote a Linked In post about the dangers of this kind of confusion.
Briggs from Perfect Day said the company spoke with all parties after seeing the photo to explain what the products are and how they should be labeled and shelved. She said it's understandable that there is confusion; the segment didn't exist before. "Animal-free" is its own category that manufacturers, retailers and consumers are getting to know, she said.
However, she said, labeling for those with allergies is very important to Perfect Day. On the ice creams that use its proteins, the company requires both a back-of-package disclosure that it contains dairy and a front-of-package one. Other companies don't do this, Briggs said, but Perfect Day feels this is a way it can be the most proactive in telling consumers what's in the product.
Why do consumers want it in the first place?
Foodmix’s O’Connell said food technology is important, but companies have to be laser-focused on the end consumer.
"You can bring the technology to the dance, but until somebody goes and picks it because it's really great, then it's just a wallflower," O’Connell said.
Food tech doesn't automatically resonate with consumers, he said. The true challenge is communicating how this technology meets consumer needs better than what’s on the market already.
Many companies are leaning hard into the sustainability aspect of their products. The topic is increasingly important to consumers who talk about alternative proteins on social media. According to Spoonshot data, mentions of alternative protein and sustainability have increased 222.1% in the last two years. But discussions of alternative proteins related to health and animal welfare are also up 141.5% and 48.2%, respectively.
"You can bring the technology to the dance, but until somebody goes and picks it because it's really great, then it's just a wallflower."
Founder and CEO, Foodmix Marketing Communications
Several of these companies have shared life-cycle assessments that compare the environmental footprint of their products to conventional ones. According to an analysis on Nature’s Fynd’s website, making Fy protein emits 94% fewer greenhouse gases, uses 99% less land and takes 99% less water than beef. Fy also has no methane emissions and much less waste, according to the company.
Nature’s Fynd has found sustainability to be important to consumers, Rawal said at Future Food-Tech.
"When we first started telling our story, … consumers really responded well to that: The fact that 'I want to do more than eat a burger occasionally. How can I do more, and how can there be more foods that can be good for the environment or do better by the environment?' " she said.
Cell-based meat is already being linked to sustainability. According to Spoonshot, cultured meat’s sustainability is cited 42.5% of the time in social media conversations, more often than any other aspect of the sector. The Good Food Institute and animal rights group GAIA commissioned a pair of life-cycle assessment studies on the space. They found cell-based meat could cause up to 92% less global warming, 93% less air pollution and use up to 95% less land and 78% less water compared to conventional beef production.
While that’s all crucial, Eat Just’s Rossmeissl said at Future Food-Tech that his company has the same top priority as one that makes more traditional products.
"You can have the most sustainable and impactful product on the planet, but if it's not something that people love to eat, you're not going to have a very big impact," he said. "So that's the most important thing we stress: Taste, deliciousness, cooking versatility, ensuring you can do the kind of things you want to do with the product."
Right now, Perfect Day's proteins have only been in ice cream — a decadent and dairy-associated category. But, Briggs said, the company offers more than a way to make cow-free ice cream. Dairy proteins can be found in products from cereal to salad dressing to potato chips to macaroni and cheese. There are many reasons that a consumer would want a product that uses Perfect Day for its dairy ingredients, Briggs said.
"We're essentially making foods that people love. They're just made in different ways," she said. "We really think that not only can we meet the needs of value-based or dietary consumer groups — like consumers that really look to avoid animal food, or they're looking to shop for sustainability, or consumers who can eat lactose — but there also is huge opportunity for us to really deliver to the needs of mainstream consumers in a way that's never been done before."
Perfect Day recently released a life-cycle assessment, comparing the environmental impact of its animal-free dairy proteins to those produced by the traditional dairy industry. According to the assessment, which was done by consulting firm WSP, Perfect Day's proteins reduce water consumption by at least 96%. Non-renewable energy use was reduced by 29% to 60%. A previous life-cycle assessment showed that Perfect Day’s production reduces greenhouse gas emissions up to 97%.
Putting this into easy-to-understand terms, the company said that if just 5% of products that use dairy today replaced it with Perfect Day's animal-free ingredient, it would save the greenhouse gas emissions of 2.7 million cars, enough energy to power Washington, D.C., for six years, and the amount of water needed to fill 1.4 million Olympic swimming pools.
Gerry said ideally, a block of Change Foods’ cheese will be identical to a block of a traditional brand of dairy cheese. But it will have packaging and labeling that shows it to be something different.
For consumers who don’t know what "animal-free" means, Gerry said, the first hurdle is convincing them that this product isn’t plant-based cheese. While plant-based cheesemakers have been working on R&D to improve their products, many consumers today have tried plant-based cheese and had a negative experience.
"Not only can we meet the needs of value-based or dietary consumer groups — like consumers that really look to avoid animal food, or they're looking to shop for sustainability, or consumers who can eat lactose — but there also is huge opportunity for us to really deliver to the needs of mainstream consumers in a way that's never been done before."
Vice president of corporate communications, Perfect Day
After the consumer buys the product, Gerry says it has to perform. In the food world, seeing, smelling and tasting are believing. A positive experience will go a long way toward turning a consumer into a repeat buyer.
And then it’s time for alternative food makers to flip the script on consumers, Gerry said. For years, plant-based and better-for-you food brands have spent much of their branding and marketing capital to tell consumers why they should buy their products, she said. The question animal-free foods should be posing to the consumer is: Why not buy this option?
"Animal-free foods live in that kind of universe. They live in the 'why not?' universe," Gerry said. "If you could have products that are made sustainably and healthier and are better for you, why not? And they tick all the boxes. I think that's such a mind shift from the existing plant-based foods. ...We had to kind of give people reason and convince them, right? We no longer have to."