KANSAS CITY, MO -- Alternative dairy represents one of the largest growth markets in plant-based foods. That being said, the dairy industry cannot ignore the plant-based trend as many dairy processors continue to add dairy alternatives and hybrid dairy products to their burgeoning portfolios.
According to Canada-based NovoTaste, dairy alternatives are increasingly popular with consumers compelled by the “plant-based revolution.” Product development is taking place in plant-based versions of traditional dairy products with line extensions into yogurts, desserts, ice cream, cheese and creamers.
Dairy hybrids are blended products involving plant proteins being incorporated into dairy products. Brands can harness both products’ taste and health benefits, offering the best of both worlds to consumers while meeting evolving consumer demands, according to a 2020 study by Mintel, a global market research firm.
According to the Bord Bia Irish Food Board, plant-based dairy alternatives are becoming increasingly popular among vegans and non-vegans alike. However, some consumers are not ready to commit fully to a plant-based diet. It’s important to understand what drives the current ’flexitarian’ trend, where consumers are increasing their intake of plant-based foods and limiting animal product consumption.
There are many motivations for buying dairy hybrid products, many of which overlap with one another. Consumers may want to boost protein intake, cut dairy in the interest of a lactose-free diet or add more vegetables to their diet. Blends offer an easy way to achieve these goals.
Post-COVID, it’s more important than ever for dairy brands to keep up to date with new consumer demands. The growing trend of flexitarianism opens the space for hybrid dairy products.
DFA Live Real Farms brand led the hybrid pack in 2020 with the rollout of its Dairy+ milk blends (lactose-free milks featuring 50:50 blends of plant-based milk and cow’s milk) to retailers in the Northeast as it pioneered the trend in the dairy case after seeing more brands experiment with the concept in the meat category.
The 50:50 blend of lactose-free dairy milk with a non-dairy alternative such as oats or almonds looks for a balance between dairy and non-dairy. It provides the lactose-free digestive wellness benefit which makes it a strong motivator for people choosing plant-based non-dairy drinks.
In early 2021, Shamrock Farms introduced Swirled — a chocolate milk that blends creamy dairy and natural plant-based ingredients. The indulgent hybrid offers the best of both worlds: chocolate milk and the reduced sugar and healthful fats found in coconut cream and almonds.
Chobani made its first foray into the burgeoning plant-based yogurt sector in 2019 with a coconut-based range of spoonable and drinkable products it claims offers superior taste and a “creamy full bodied” texture, with 25% less sugar than rival offerings.
Today, the company is still going strong with its dairy alternatives. Chobani Oatmilk is made with the simple, natural goodness of oats. It’s plant-based and vegan-friendly, crafted without dairy or lactose. The non-dairy oatmilk offerings are a great source of calcium, and a good source of vitamins A and D. And spoonable oat blends and crunch contain probiotics, and 3 to 4 grams of plant-based protein.
It’s no secret that the industry has seen tremendous rise in the demand for both plant-based cheese offerings as well as hybrid plant-based and dairy-based products. So what’s contributing to this trend?
Shannon Maher, chief marketing officer at Bel Brands USA, said today’s households are full of different diets and food preferences, and people’s food choices are transforming.
“In 2020, plant-based product sales grew two times faster than overall food sales and more than half (52%) of Americans are incorporating more plant-based products into their daily lives,” she added. “When we look specifically at Gen Z consumers, 52 percent are eating more healthy snacks and looking to add more plant-based foods to their diet. Additionally, flexitarians are on the rise, with nine out of 10 of these consumers trying to add more plants to their diet.”
Maher said that as consumers shift toward a more flexitarian diet, the industry has an opportunity to introduce a mix of plant-based, traditional and hybrid products.
“As our consumers already know and trust, we are uniquely positioned to continue to expand our dairy-based offerings through innovation and new flavor development, while also introducing hybrid and plant-based products to meet those evolving demands,” she said. “The launch of new hybrid and plant-based cheese furthers Bel’s commitment to become a major player in the healthy snack market, diversifying through growth in dairy, fruit and plant-based products.”
This has been an exciting year for Bel Brands with the launch of products from the company’s beloved brands, including a new hybrid cheese product from The Laughing Cow and the launch of plant-based varieties, including Boursin Dairy Free, and its first entirely plant-based cheese brand, Nurishh.
“These new launches have been well-received by consumers who already love our brands and are looking for options to meet their flexitarian consumption habits,” Maher said.
Earlier this year, The Laughing Cow brand introduced The Laughing Cow Blends cheese spreads — the brand’s first hybrid cheese.
“The cheese spreads have a delightful blend that combines the best of both worlds: The same spreadable, smooth goodness of the brand’s beloved creamy cheese, blended with beans, chickpeas or lentils,” Maher said. “The Laughing Cow Blends cheese spreads bring a new taste and texture for a totally new experience for consumers. Each wedge is infused with bold spice and/or herbs and packed with delicious flavor backed by real, plant-based ingredients.”
Each wedge also provides 2 grams of protein and offer a good source of calcium and vitamin E. The Laughing Cow Blends cheese spreads are available in three unique flavors: Chickpea & Cheese with Herb, Lentil & Cheese with Curry and Red Bean & Cheese with Paprika.
Bel’s entertaining cheese brand, Boursin, also expanded its product line to include Boursin Dairy-Free Cheese Spread Alternative Garlic & Herbs — created to meet flexitarian food trends and evolving consumer demands.
“While not a hybrid product, this certified 100% plant-based Boursin cheese is a unique, creamy, spreadable product; one that helps fulfill the need for great-tasting gourmet cheese alternatives and allows even more consumers to enjoy the distinct taste and texture of Boursin,” Maher said. “This product is suitable for vegans, lactose-free, non-soy and nut based, non-GMO and gluten-free.”
Additionally, Bel launched its first completely plant-based cheese brand, Nurishh, in the US earlier this year.
“Guided by Bel’s French cheese-making expertise, Nurishh strikes the balance of genuine cheesy taste, meltability, and comfort with plant-based goodness,” Maher said.
Nurishh is available in shreds and slices with a variety of everyday flavors. The products are also certified plant-based, certified vegan, lactose-free, and a good source of calcium and vitamin B12, containing no artificial colors or flavors.
“We’ve seen an exciting response from consumers over the past few months across all these new product launches and look forward to continuing the momentum as we close out 2021 and head into 2022,” Maher said, adding that Bel has an exciting innovation pipeline across all brands that will continue to meet growing consumer demands, expanding taste profiles and dietary considerations while also seeking to make a positive impact on our communities and the environment.
“While we continue to explore plant-based formats and flavors for all our brands, the biggest driver for innovation at Bel will always be our consumer,” she said. “Our ongoing priority is to deliver quality products that meet our consumers’ needs, while ensuring they can also feel good about what they are eating and feeding to their families.”