Dairy industry trade bodies and dairy companies are on the offensive. Their target: the nutritional profile of plant-based alternatives.
In February, the FDA provided new draft labeling recommendations for plant-based milk to provide “consumers with clear labeling to give them the information they need to make informed nutrition and purchasing decisions.” These changes would require any product using the term ‘milk’ to clearly state how its levels of key nutrients - protein, calcium, vitamins A, D and B-12, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium and riboflavin - compare to dairy milk.1 This guidance is driven by statements from groups like Dairy Farmers of America, who argue that consumers are “misled into consuming products of lesser nutritional value than milk” and Healthy Eating Research, whose focus groups find that parents don’t understand how the nutrient profiles of plant-based milks compare to cow’s milk.2 While this guidance only applies to plant-based milk, the FDA has indicated that other dairy alternatives will face similar labeling rules soon.
This regulation change isn’t the only attack on the industry. The Netherlands has imposed a new 196% tax increase on plant milks that lack sufficient protein levels, classifying these beverages as soft drinks.3 In the US, it is the media, not the government, that is comparing the sugar level in plant-based milks to popular sodas.
This messaging campaign is working. The Plant Based Food Association found that 54% of consumers agreed with the statement “I dislike that even though plant-based options are healthier…there are still hidden unhealthy ingredients that people are unaware of.” In fact, the growing consumer consciousness about plant-based nutrition facts may have contributed to the first year of declining US retail unit sales of dairy alternatives. Good Food Institute reports that all alternative dairy subsegments from milk to yogurt to cheese posted unit sales declines in 2022. Creamers and cheese spreads were the only exceptions.
It’s clear that nutrition matters to dairy alternative consumers. ¼ of plant-based milk consumers and 1/3 of plant-based yogurt consumers purchase these products specifically to add more protein to their diets. They are also more likely than the average consumer to follow a low sugar diet.4 So why are companies fighting against this narrative when they should instead be working to deliver more nutrient-dense offerings to their consumers?
The reality is that plant-based ingredients have limited formulators’ ability to deliver a delicious, creamy, and nutritious product. Plant proteins have significant flavor, functionality, and allergenicity challenges. Adding more plant protein to dairy alternatives typically means increasing beany, cardboard, or bitter off-notes that distract from the dairy taste profile, forcing developers to either reduce protein levels or add a lot of sugar to mask the taste. In yogurts, plant proteins create a gritty or tacky texture whereas in cheese they prevent the products from being able to stretch, shred, melt and spread. The protein options become even more limited if you try to avoid top allergens like soy or nuts. So, brands have foregone nutrition in favor of taste and texture.
Today’s consumer is not willing to accept this tradeoff any longer. At MycoTechnology, we aren’t either. That’s why we developed our shiitake mushroom mycelia fermented pea protein, a more neutral tasting, whiter colored protein powder that creates smooth, creamy, protein-packed dairy alternatives. Our unique mycelial fermentation process reduces the green, grassy, beany notes common to pea protein so that firms can create dairy alternatives with equal or higher levels of protein and less sugar than dairy products. This natural process also increases solubility, emulsion, and heat stability so beverages, yogurts and spreads maintain their decadent, creamy mouthfeel.
A new wave of plant-based dairy alternatives is required to attract new consumers and grow the market. These consumers demand delicious, nutritious products that measure up to the dairy products they already know and love. To capture their attention, brands need to deliver products with more protein and vitamins, but less sugar and fat. It’s time for plant-based dairy products to deliver the nutrition, taste and texture consumers need to feel good about doing better – for their health and the planet’s.
- Brightfield Group Consumer Survey, Q1 2023