The non-dairy segment started out as an alternative category catering to those with food allergies, but it has since evolved beyond a trend.
Now, it embraces the plant-based and dairy-free lifestyle — one that is conscious of environmental, ethical, and health concerns. There are a significant number of consumers who can’t eat dairy. More than 40 million Americans are lactose intolerant. But many others are looking to dairy alternatives.
Daniel Nicholson, president and CEO of NadaMoo!, which makes certified gluten-free, fair trade, vegan, non-GMO and organic ice creams, said its consumer demographic has crossed over to encompass people who also consume traditional dairy.
“Consumers today are more educated than ever. They care about what they put into their bodies as well as how what they eat affects the environment, animals and the ecosystem around them,” he told Food Dive. “They are looking for more plant-based products that taste great and can leave them with a conscience as clean as our label.”
Based on the number of products coming out each year and major companies getting in the game, dairy-free food is here to stay. In 2017, consumers will be flooded with non-dairy choices as companies respond to demand.
Daiya Foods was the first company in the business to create a meltable 100% plant-based cheese. It has since expanded to frozen pizzas, Cheezy Mac, Cheezecakes, and a Greek yogurt alternative. It also just introduced Blue Cheeze Dressings.
“The plant-based lifestyle is becoming more mainstream, in part because consumers are catching on to the various health, environmental and ethical benefits of plant-based foods,” Andre Kroecher, co-founder of Daiya Foods, told Food Dive. “If you walk down what used to be just the dairy aisle, you will notice that plant-based alternatives to dairy are occupying a significant portion of the shelf. The sustained demand for great tasting plant-based dairy alternative products made from nuts such as almonds, seeds such as hemp or sunflower, potato, tapioca, rice, oats etc. indicate they are consumed and thought of as great tasting, staple foods that happen to be plant based.”
Greg Blake, co-founder of Daiya Foods, noted the company’s innovations are meant to inspire those hoping to incorporate more plant-based foods into their diet, and help those living with dietary restrictions who have felt limited in their food options.
“For us, plant-forward eating isn’t about limiting your options, but a means of expanding one’s view of food,” he said. “We’re unique in that food industry experts claimed this couldn’t be done without using animal based ingredients such as egg, meat and milk. Not only have we proven these products can be 100% plant-based, but we’ve made them so convincing that they are virtually indistinguishable from their animal-based equivalents.”
Meg Carlson, president and CEO of Prosperity Organic Foods and dairy-free alternative producer MELT Organic, predicted that and plant-based alternatives to traditional dairy products will continue to grow over the next decade
“Consumers are concerned about ethical sourcing of ingredients and especially that dairy products sourced from large dairy farms are not sustainable for the long term,” she told Food Dive in an email. “The methane gas from two cows is the equivalent of the emissions from a car driven 10,000 miles, for example. Consumers are also concerned about sustainably sourcing ingredients from third-world countries, especially coconut oil and palm oil, which historically have had disastrous consequences both for local farmers and for the rainforests.”
Bob Goldberg, CEO and founder of Follow Your Heart — which makes non-egg mayonnaise alternative Vegenaise, non-dairy cheeses and vegan eggs that scramble — agreed that what was once a smattering of alternative products for people who had food intolerances of one kind or another has become accepted in the mainstream as more people seek relief from food-related problems.
“Any time you have something to offer which can solve a problem for someone, that gets their attention,” he told Food Dive. “The biggest challenges are tradition and resistance from big food. We tend to grow up eating like our parents. The lag time associated with breaking that mold can be as little as a few years, or it can take decades.”
Milk — from any source —does a body good
According to Mintel, US non-dairy milk sales grew 9% in 2015, while dairy milk sales declined 7% over the same period. One only needs to look at the refrigerator case at a grocery store to see that retailers are increasingly stocking more plant-based milks with fewer artificial ingredients.
Greg Steltenpohl, founder of Califia Farms -- which exclusively produces plant-based products such as almond milk and cold brew coffees -- noted these items are fast growing, taste-driven, on the cusp of becoming mainstream, and essential to the sustainability of our planet.
“This trend, which we believe is on the tipping point of moving from food trend to food system reality, is primarily driven by millennials, but also being adopted by other demographics, who are looking for healthier, simpler, ‘cleaner labels,’” he told Food Dive in an email. “They are mindful and seek food and beverages that do not sacrifice taste, nutrition or quality. Another growing number of consumers are those who understand that the sustainability of our food ecosystem is increasingly going to be reliant on a plant-based diet.”
And, it is important to note, this is not driven solely by vegans and vegetarians. In a survey Califia Farms conducted last year with BerryCart, more than half of omnivores surveyed reported consuming plant-based alternative dairy beverages several times a week. In addition, “I like the taste” and “healthier than dairy milk” were the top two reasons for choosing alt dairy beverages across all respondents.
“It is a hugely promising market for any plant-based company focused on delicious, taste-forward, non-dairy food and beverages that, first and foremost, begin with a cleaner label,” Steltenpohl said. “The challenge comes with the magnitude of the opportunity, as we manage dramatic sales growth, while keeping our mission of sustainability and mindfulness front and center.”
When it comes to dairy-free products, consumers are looking for a product that tastes just like dairy-based products. Today’s consumer also expects natural ingredients instead of just flavors.
“In order for plant-based beverage companies to gain a loyal following, a dedication to naturally sourced ingredients that don’t mimic or mask flavors, but, instead, enhance them, is critical,” Steltenpohl said. “And consumers expect these products to replicate homemade tastes while still providing a safe, extended shelf life. This means that less is more. Keeping ingredients as few and simple as possible, with no chemical compounds, makes for happy customers.”
Working on flavor profiles is a multifaceted effort for the NadaMoo! team.
“We look at consumer trends and flavors that we love. Once we settle on a few flavors, we test them rigorously using different ingredients until we find just the right combination,” Nicholson said. “We also collaborate with Texas chefs and pastry chefs on taste testing and flavor profiles to gather opinions on what is the most marketable.”
Blake said the substantial in-house R&D team at Daiya utilizes the latest world-class sensory technology and software to measure all attributes of dairy-based gold standards. They then plot Daiya flavor and texture profiles and characteristics with their dairy equivalents.
“The contrast is obsessively worked on until we score results in flavor, texture, mouthfeel and meltability that mimic the dairy equivalent so closely that for many of our products, it’s incredibly difficult to detect what’s dairy vs. Daiya,” he said. “It’s super challenging because we’ve also got to make sure that the batches are consistent. A new consumer might only try a brand or product once and if they get a batch where the taste or texture isn’t 100% perfect, and they may judge the entire brand by that experience.”
Non-dairy dairy cases?
The dairy case of tomorrow may look increasingly plant-centric and much more like a “non-dairy case.”
At a panel on the plant-based food revolution at Natural Products Expo East 2016, Mathis Martines, emerging brands and innovation director at Kroger, said plant-based alternatives and healthy fats are two of the leading long-term trends that will influence the food industry in the foreseeable future.
Steltenpohl said innovations will continue at a robust pace in the category, taking plant-powered foods and beverages from isolated category to a food ecosystem imperative.
“As more of the population becomes aware that a plant-based diet is the only real sustainable option for the future of our planet, plant-based foods and beverages have a natural opportunity to succeed,” he said. “Couple that with the emphasis millennials and an aging boomer population, place on health and wellness, and plant-based food and beverages companies are destined to gain significant traction.”
Competition in this industry has increased over the last decade, but Daiya Foods sees that as a positive thing for two reasons.
“First, it’s good for consumers because the competition has forced the industry players to raise the bar in terms of taste, texture and other attributes of dairy-based counterparts, such as melting, stretching and handling characteristics for cheese alternatives, as an example,” Kroecher said.
“Second, most of the companies we compete with are actually friendly, and we have a fairly open channel of communication with them. We all realize that because of the growth of this space that there continues to be enough room for everyone and that as a group we can help each other and be more influential in the industry than we could be otherwise on our own."