SAN FRANCISCO — Finding a casein alternative could help a startup company cash in on an innovation challenge. Future Food-Tech and Danone North America, White Plains, NY, are partnering on the challenge, which focuses on improving the texture and melting properties of plant-based cheese alternatives.

Applications will be taken until Jan. 31. The winner will be announced at a Future Food-Tech event in San Francisco March 24-25.

Traditional cheese has an advantage over cheese alternatives in that it has casein, a protein in milk.

“Casein is what makes cheese solidify, melt and stretch,” said Takoua Debeche, PhD, chief research and innovation officer for Danone North America, in a Jan. 13 webinar put on by Future Food-Tech. “Vegan cheeses have tried to imitate the properties of casein by using different ingredients to provide gel or stretch. Those could be starches, hydrocolloids, the types of oils, etc., but still those solutions do not fully deliver on the dairy cheese functionalities when it comes to melt and stretch.”

Danone has worked with several plant protein sources, including soybeans and peas.

“We are looking for plant proteins that can deliver specific functionality, like gelling, or like emulsification,” Dr. Debeche said, mentioning the functional benefits of potato protein and corn protein.

Precision fermentation already has been used to create whey protein alternatives found in ice cream and cream cheese alternatives, she added.

“However, we know the cost is still a challenge,” Dr. Debeche said. “We need to scale up to bring those costs down, at least equivalent to dairy products.”

US retail sales of plant-based cheese alternatives reached $220 million in the 52-week period ended Dec. 12, 2021, which was up 14% from the previous 52-week period, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm. The category sales compared to $19.2 billion for dairy cheese, which was down 1.1%. Household penetration of plant-based cheese alternatives was over 6% at the end of November 2021. Total cheese penetration neared 97%.

Plant-based cheese alternatives face a “gap” in stretching qualities when compared to traditional cheese, Dr. Debeche said. Closing the gap could lead to more inclusion of plant-based cheese alternatives in burgers, pizza and grilled cheese sandwich alternatives.

“We tried a lot of solutions with ingredients, formulations,” she said. “I think at the end what’s going to work is probably a combination of all of that. It’s not only a magical ingredient or magical process.”