Chobani, which is a household name with its popular Greek yogurt variety, is hoping for similar success with a new plant-based product — despite its lack of two common attributes.
The company was careful not to describe its new Non-Dairy Chobani, its first offering in the space, as "milk" or "yogurt" amid an ongoing battle between traditional animal-based producers and those who make products from plants. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration opened a comment period in late September to get the public's opinion on using traditional dairy terms for plant-based items, which may help determine whether alternatives can continue to use that terminology on labels and in advertising.
"Words matter," Peter McGuinness, Chobani's chief marketing and commercial officer, told Food Dive. "We stayed away from 'milk' and we stayed away from 'yogurt' because we think that's misleading. We believe there's regulation that will regulate that."
The new product made from coconuts hit some store shelves this month and will be available nationwide by the middle of February. Chobani aims to grow the market place for plant-based yogurts, which according to the company, commanded only about 2% of the roughly $9 billion in yogurt sales in 2018.
"We have dairy in our veins and we love dairy and we totally believe in dairy and we’re totally completely committed to dairy, but if there is a small growing segment of the population that prefers this, why not try to make a great product for them?"
Chief marketing and commercial officer, Chobani
McGuinness said there are a lot of plant-based yogurts made from ingredients like soy, almonds, peanuts, coconuts and cashews but most of them taste poor, the texture is off, or they are high in sugar. Chobani has been watching the plant-based market earnestly for the last year, and decided now was the time to enter the nascent space.
"It's here. It's real," McGuinness said. "We have dairy in our veins and we love dairy and we totally believe in dairy and we’re totally completely committed to dairy, but if there is a small growing segment of the population that prefers this why not try to make a great product for them?"
According to figures from Nielsen and the Plant Based Foods Association, non-dairy milk sales jumped 9% to $1.6 billion in the 52 weeks ended in June. During that same period, sales of cow's milk fell 6%. Other plant-based dairy alternatives saw even higher sales increases, with creamers up 131% from the previous year, yogurt sales growing 55% and plant-based cheeses jumping 43%.
Non-Dairy Chobani will come in both bottles and cups, with several flavors including strawberry and slightly sweet plain. They will mirror other Chobani products by using only natural, non-GMO ingredients and lacking artificial flavors, sweeteners or preservatives. Each product has 25% less sugar than other non-dairy options.
"Our goal is more to democratize it and make it more approachable and accessible and to try to expand the universe versus grab a certain amount of market share within the existing universe,” McGuinness said. “We’re trying to grow consumption and expand categories — through disruption, of course, and through better options and through innovation — but we’re trying to make the category bigger and broader.”
Chobani is the leader in Greek yogurt with 40% of the market. As sales across the industry decline, the company and other food manufacturers have started to look for new avenues of growth.
Last month, Chobani introduced a new line of kids' yogurt products, called Chobani Gimmies, with a range of child-friendly flavors such as Poppin’ Cotton Candy, Best Birthday Ever and Ooey Gooey S’More. The company also has been trying to keep up with consumer trends in other ways by introducing its "A Hint Of" lower-sugar yogurt line.
McGuinness said the company used coconuts for its first plant-based foray because of past experience adding it to some of its other products, as well as the ability to get a reliable supply. Still, he said, the company hasn't ruled out branching into other plant-based ingredients, though there is no timetable for when that will take place.
"Everything is on the table," McGuinness said. "There are a lot of different people out there that prefer different plant-based products and so we’re open to exploring that whole world. This is the beginning, not the end.”