KANSAS CITY - As more options become available, plant-based cheeses are exploding in the dairy and specialty cheese cases. Data released by the Plant-based Food Association (PBFA) and the Good Food Institution found that plant-based cheese sales grew by 18% in 2019, largely outpacing growth in dairy cheese sales, which added 1.4% in 2019.

The sales increase for plant-based cheeses in 2020 (final-year numbers are expected soon) is expected to be even higher. At the height of COVID-19 panic-buying, the overall plant-based category expanded by 95%, leading to many consumers trying plant-based products like vegan cheese for the first time.

Rising trends are also expanding consumer interest in plant-based based cheeses.

“Consumers seek out plant-based food options, including cheese, for various personal reasons, including taste, health benefits, environmental impact, and animal welfare,” said Michael Robbins, PFBA’s spokesperson. “As the environmental crisis becomes more pressing, awareness around options that are better for the earth are growing in popularity.”

“Additionally, many dishes that Americans cook and consume regularly contain cheese. As more Americans switch to plant-based and flexitarian lifestyles for any of the above reasons, there is no doubt that they will seek out plant-based options to fulfill their favorite cheese cravings, from charcuterie boards to garnishes,” Robbins added.

A few years ago, plant-based cheese options were limited, and most consumers who bought them either ate only plant-based diets or were lactose intolerant. Oftentimes the plant-based cheeses of the past didn’t quite hit the mark to act as a genuine replacement for their dairy counterparts.

“Plenty of consumers have craved plant-based products but just couldn’t bring themselves to use them—often because of the flavor or texture. If consumers don’t like the way something tastes, they won’t stand by it,” noted Keith Schuman, business unit lead of Fairfield, NJ-based Schuman Cheese’s Vevan Foods brand. “Now flexitarians, or those that eat meat but choose to limit consumption, are a big consumer of plant-based cheese. This is largely due to the quality of products that they can find on shelves. Plant-based cheeses have never tasted and functioned more like the real thing than they do now, and consumers are noticing.”

Unique flavor with functionality of dairy cheese

When it comes to plant-based products, it’s important that they taste good within their own right, noted Justin Lambeth, chief executive officer of Kingston, N.Y.-based Treeline Cheese.

“It’s not that it tastes just like dairy cheese, but they’re delicious,” Lambeth said. “Consumers want the functionality of the product to be similar, so it needs to have some of those functional characteristics of the conventional counterpart.”

Simple and natural ingredients also go a long way to meet a wider consumer base. Treeline’s herb garlic plant-based cheese, for example, includes cashews, water, lemon juice, garlic, oregano, salt, pepper, and a culture called probiotic acidophilus.

“I think we'll have more longevity than the ones that are a bit of a science experiment, with a lot of additives and gums and fillers that people don't recognize,” Lambeth said. “One of the advantages of conventional dairy is it's very clean ingredients and it's made naturally. So if consumers are going to switch from a nationally-made product to another product, they want it to be the same.”

Vevan looks at the plant-based cheese category from the lens of its dairy cheese-making parent company, Schuman Cheese. That unique insight helps Vevan understand what both vegan and flexitarian customers are looking for in cheese products, and it’s not that much different.

“Looking ahead, our innovations will meet consumers where they already are, but where they may be making sacrifices, whether it’s entertaining or snacking on-the-go or another occasion where delicious cheese can make the experience even better,” said Schuman. “The growth trends we’re seeing now for plant-based cheese are incredibly similar to earlier growth in the meat and milk categories. Once a product reaches a point where it is truly delicious in its own right, it gives the category permission to explode in growth.”

Vevan recently released a Snax lineup, which contains Vevan’s dairy, gluten, lactose and GMO-free cheese cubes with nuts and fruit in portable, on-the-go packaging.

While many plant-based cheese companies draw comparisons between their plant-based cheese products with dairy cheese varieties, Seattle-based Field Roast lets its plant-based cheese, Chao, stand on its own.

“Unlike other plant-based cheese products that mimic popular mainstream dairy cheese flavors like cheddar, mozzarella and American, Chao products are coconut-based and made with a special fermented tofu ingredient that provides an unmatched buttery, umami bite,” said a spokesperson for Greenleaf Foods, the parent company of Field Roast. “Chao Creamery Cheese products are vegan, non-dairy, non-GMO and are made with no artificial flavors or ingredients.”

Field Roast’s lineup includes slices in Creamy Original Chao, Tomato Cayenne Chao, Smoked Original Chao, Spicy Original Chao and Garden Herb Chao varieties and shreds in Creamy Original Chao and Mexican-Style Blend Chao.

Marketing strategies

As flexitarians become increasingly interested in plant-based cheeses, it will be important to market the plant-based cheeses in the same spot their dairy counterparts would be sold in the store.

“All too frequently, plant-based food items are isolated to their own ‘health food’ section of stores. As plant-based cheese continues to grow exponentially in popularity, retailers will benefit greatly by putting the plant-based cheese where consumers expect to find it — in the dairy section with other cheeses,” said Robbins. “The future of plant-based foods in retail, including plant-based cheese, is fully integrated into stores, allowing easy and straight-forward access for consumers.”

Vevan’s Schuman added to that sentiment, noting that merchandising plant-based products with their conventional counterpart will be key in growing the category.

“For the longest time, plant-based cheese and meat sat in the produce section, a clear statement to consumers that this was a product meant only for vegans,” Schuman said. “In reality, so many people who eat meat or dairy also eat plant-based foods at least some of the time. A simple change of placement encourages consumers to explore and try new options that could prove to be equally as delicious. With this more inclusive approach, we’re making delicious products available to a wider group of prospective consumers, not just vegans.”

A study done around Kroger’s placement of Beyond Meat and Impossible burgers in the meat aisle found that of the consumers who purchased a Beyond burger, 93% also purchased traditional meat. Schuman said the same would likely apply to the plant-based cheese category.

In-store signage is also important, Robbins pointed out.

“Retailers shouldn’t underestimate the power of visibility increased by plant-based signage to help shoppers more easily discern plant-based cheeses from their animal-based counterparts, as well as marketing efforts to promote plant-based foods.”

As the plant-based category continues to grow, retailers can support customers looking for vegan options with recipes and samples.

“We expect to see continued proliferation of forms and flavors and larger footprints at retailers as consumers discover that plant-based cheese can provide the taste and functionality of dairy cheese,” said a Greenleaf Foods spokesperson. “The pace of growth in the plant-based cheese category has been growing significantly in recent years, with a future potential of $1.69B. In-store promotional materials and signage that helps draw attention to the presence and availability of plant-based cheeses will be important in enticing trial.”

Vegan pizza cheese company eyes retail

A few years ago, Gunars Elmuts, the founder and chief executive officer of New York-based NUMU, was looking for a vegan cheese that suited his taste for pizza. When he couldn’t find the right substitute for dairy cheese, he set out to create one for himself.

NUMU started out small, testing their vegan cheese with local restaurants who gave Elmuts feedback until the plant-based cheese was perfect to melt on pizzas.

“After years of experimenting just for myself and continuing to improve it by bringing it to restaurants and getting feedback from chefs and friends who were not plant-based, I continued to improve it until it got to the point where I felt comfortable to go public with it,” Elmuts said.

Made with coconut oil, NUMU’s vegan mozzarella is dairy, lactose, casein, nut, GMO and cholesterol-free and designed with a taste and texture that goes well with pizzas.

After a successful launch in foodservice, Elmuts said the company is now looking to expand its product to retail. Currently, NUMU’s vegan mozzarella is only available in shreds, and the company is working on developing multiple SKUs to launch at retail.