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Dairy-free… What’s next and how to mylk it

7 min read
AUTHOR: Elisa Roche

With more people than ever pledging to go flexitarian in 2022, the Alt-Dairy industry continues to be a growing sector which faces a huge horizon of opportunity. Joined by specialists from Cargill Starches, Sweeteners and Texturizers Europe, we discuss what the future holds for this innovative marketplace set to be worth £23 billion within the decade. 

The dairy-free industry is one of the fastest-growing food sectors around, with consumers keen to adjust their diets over concerns around the climate crisis, health (especially allergens and intolerances) and animal welfare, and producers keen to diversify what they have to offer. But replicating the unique, sticky and nostalgic attributes of cow’s milk  is no mean feat.  

That’s where companies like Cargill come in. Their INFUSE service supports food producers looking to remove functional ingredients – like specific animal-derived proteins – and replace them with blended ingredients that can help replicate dairy products’ textures, sweetness and spreadability, for example. 

Research by Cargill has found that more than 40% of European shoppers consume both dairy and dairy alternatives, from oat and almond to new-kid-on-the-block potato mylk. Many of us now have a variety of products in our fridges. It’s a step change from a few years ago, when most dairy alternative products were soy-based and focused on recreating milk. “That’s definitely changed now,” explains Matthias Bourdeau, Marketing Manager for Texturizers at Cargill Starches, Sweeteners and Texturizers Europe. “Our market is not just those alternative drinks, but it’s also things like alternatives to cheese, ice cream, yoghurt, desserts and even creamers.”  

Despite the many innovations taking place, the dairy-free industry doesn’t look set to replace real dairy. Yet. Israel’s cultivated dairy company ReMilk secured £88million in B Series funding as the year kicked off, proving there is a thirsty appetite for lab cultivated dairy. But most die-hard dairy fans are not quite there yet. 

In general, it seems that dairy-free and plant-based options are set to continue complimenting the dairy industry’s offer. Matthias says: “Consumers really love the taste of real dairy products. And they’re not about to give them up all together. In our studies, we’ve found around two thirds of European dairy consumers prefer the taste of real dairy versus the taste of dairy alternatives.” Matching the sensory attributes of cow’s milk, like the smoothness, and the soft and sweet taste, is proving challenging – pea protein is the closest thing to cow’s milk that Cargill’s teams are working with. Dairy milk is also more nutritionally dense than plant-based milks, so it seems that both dairy and non-dairy alternatives will coexist and complement each other for some time to come.  

Matthias explains: “Both can can coexist next to one another. There are a lot of dairy manufacturers that benefit from the plant-based movement. Many big names in dairy are leveraging the trend as a means of either revamping their struggling brands or extending the success of the brands they have today. And you can see more and more of those products sitting next to each other in the same aisle.” 

It’s certainly a fast-moving area, with innovators and entrepreneurs becoming very successful very quickly, but with some failing fast too. 

“Retailers are expecting new products on their shelves quickly, to show their success in this new area,” says Hannah Keenan, Business Development Manager at Cargill INFUSE. “Otherwise you may not remain on the shelf for long with your product. That’s why it’s really important to have the right ingredient partner that can be as agile as you need them to be in this ever-evolving market.” 

Having the right ingredient partner – like Cargill INFUSE – means food producers can shift and adapt to the very agile dairy-free market, helping to speed up product development and launch. As Hannah explains: “Things are really changing fast with new protein bases and new types of products popping up all the time.” The market for protein alternative solutions is very dynamic, with researchers working hard to identify the ingredients that replicate elements of dairy as closely as possible. 

The industry has gone from soy being the main base ingredient for most non-dairy options a few years back, to the marketplace exploding with a huge variety of products, varieties and ingredients. That’s especially been the case since soy received bad press due to the use of GMO in its production. Emerging and popular dairy alternatives include pea, pistachio, oat, the afore-mentioned potato and ancient grains like quinoa, teff and millet – the latter of which have good nutritional properties and are more sustainable than established options like almond.  

However, each dairy alternative ingredient poses its own challenges – with vegan cheeses for example, there are issues such as firmness, grating, slicing and melting to consider. For plant-based yoghurts, soy has been popularly used because it brings a smooth and creamy texture through fermentation technology. As manufacturers seek alternatives to soy, they need to think about issues like smoothness, shininess, viscosity, creaminess, colour and calcium, as Cargill’s Caroline Delabrousse, Technical Business Development Manager (Dairy), explains: “In fat-reduced recipes we use emulsifying starches to mimic the fat mouthfeel. Pectin, a plant-based texturiser, is used in combination with starches to improve the stability of texture and create a smooth gel. At Cargill we’re producing pectin from apple and from citrus bases, like lemon or orange.” 

It won’t be long before consumers take even more interest in the ingredient list, asking questions about how many ingredients each product has, if they need to have so many ingredients, and how much those ingredients have been processed.

Matthias Bourdeau,Marketing Manager for Texturizers, Cargill

It’s clear that teaming up with experts like Cargill can help food producers achieve speedy development and launch of new dairy alternative products. Hannah reveals: “Cargill INFUSE is an offer to our customers to formulate or emulate their products, enabling them to stay ahead. We offer a blend of ingredients which replace key functional and sensory properties when we’re removing the animal-based protein.” This allows the customer to simplify and really speed up their project development from start to finish.  

Innovation is certainly a buzzword when it comes to the dairy alternatives market. So where could all these innovations lead next? Once texture and taste issues are ironed out, Matthias believes the focus will fall onto nutritional value and labelling of dairy alternatives. “It won’t be long before consumers take an interest in the ingredient list, asking questions about how many ingredients each product has, if they need to have so many ingredients, and how much those ingredients have been processed.” 

There could also be a move towards hybrids of animal and plant protein in the dairy market, taking products to a point where they have a higher protein content (which is less animal-based) but also the desired sugar level. As the space grows and evolves, Cargill is ready to support its customers with innovative solutions that deliver real results, so consumers can continue to enjoy their favourite dairy products with reduced impact on the planet and benefits to their health.  

Keen on all things food and drink? The Table Talk podcast, brought to you by Food Matters Live, explores every aspect of the food industry – from food security to industry disruptors, net zero targets and food health claims. Subscribe via Apple, Spotify, Google or your preferred podcasting platform.