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Meeting consumer expectations with dairy alternatives [Interview]

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While the dairy alternatives sector is bursting with innovation, meeting consumer expectations remains a challenge. We spoke with NIZO senior project manager Dr Els de Hoog about how brands can deliver the right sensory experiences when reformulating or developing new products.
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Dr Els de Hoog is Senior Project Manager, Food Texture at NIZO, a global leader in contract research for better food and health. Els will be participating in Fi Global Insight’s Dairy Deep Dive Day on 5 April. Click here to register for the event.

Els, your presentation focuses on the dairy alternatives sector. What do you think is driving consumer demand for such product innovation, and where are we seeing most growth?

“Dairy alternatives are important within the whole framework of the move towards a more plant-based diet. As we know, the protein transition is being driven by concerns over healthy eating, the environment and animal welfare etc. And compared with what we are seeing in the meat alternative segments, I would say that the plant-based dairy alternative segment is quite developed already.

“When you walk into a supermarket for example, the plant-based beverage shelves usually present consumers with a huge choice. It is notable though that when you move from liquid through to semi-solid and then to solid dairy alternative products, the development is less advanced. Also, the dairy alternative segment is just 5 % of the dairy segment. The sector is small, but fast-growing.”

Are there important regional differences when it comes to the global dairy alternative market?

“We do see quite a lot of regional differences, usually due to cultural and dietary traditions. In Europe and the US for example, we are used to consuming a lot of dairy, and are slowly moving towards more plant-based diets. Consumers in the Asia Pacific region by contrast are more used to plant-based diets to begin with – including lots of rice and soy, for example. Their agricultural systems also tend to be more plant-based. There are also regulatory differences; in Europe you cannot call a plant-based beverage ‘milk’, while in the US and Asia, you can.”

What are some of the challenges facing manufacturers looking to bring dairy alternative products onto the market, in terms of meeting consumer expectations?

“There are four levels of consumer expectations. The first step is gaining consumer trust. Plant-based foods require different ingredients and processing steps, so all this needs to be taken into account. Second, taste and texture remain absolutely critical for consumers in terms of product acceptance. A product can be very healthy, but if a consumer doesn’t like it, he or she simply won’t buy it again.

“The third level is nutrition, which also remains a challenge. Consumers need to ensure that they receive all the nutrients they need. This is quite a nuanced question - rice milk for example will contain very little protein. On the other hand, it will contain more fibre. So, swapping dairy for plant-based is not a case of swapping like for like. And finally, there is performance, which is especially challenging for semi-solid and solid dairy alternative products. A creamer for example must remain stable withstand the acidity and heat of coffee.” 

What interesting technical innovations are we seeing in the dairy alternatives sector?

“We are seeing a lot of fermentation at the moment. Certain microorganisms for example can be used to reduce off-flavours. Pea for example has a particular strong taste that can be neutralised through fermentation – microorganisms can be used to eat the dominant flavour components away, and even contribute to positive flavour notes. Fermentation can also be used to produce polysaccharides and enzymes, and improve texture.”

Are these technical innovations helping to change consumer perceptions of dairy alternative products?

“I think so. We have seen lots of discussion in the media and in society at large about the benefits of eating a more plant-based diet, so more people are being challenged to try it. And the more that consumers get used to something, the more they accept it. Techniques such as fermentation are helping to improve taste and texture, and help meet consumer expectations and increase acceptance.”

What exciting new innovations do you see emerging in this sector?

 “We are seeing a lot of attention around the ‘milk without a cow’ concept. We can use microorganisms to produce proteins, and ‘dress’ them in such a way to produce milk proteins whey proteins and casein. This would enable us to produce dairy alternative products that are much closer to the nutritional value and performance of real dairy. There are lots of start-ups working on this, which is exciting. A lot of development is still needed of course, but this is about bringing products closer to the expectations of the consumer.”

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