Editorial Comment Publisher/Editor



Plant-Based Dairy Alternatives Losing A Bit Of Their Luster

Dick Groves
Cheese Reporter

November 8, 2019

Let’s face it, these are pretty heady times for plant-based dairy alternatives. But at the same time, there are some indications that these plant-based foods are beginning to lose a bit of their luster.

There are many indicators of the rise and ongoing success of plant-based dairy alternatives, but we’ll cite just three of them here, all courtesy of the Plant Based Foods Association.

First, there is a Plant Based Foods Association. The PBFA was founded back in March of 2016 as what it called the first trade group to represent the fast-growing plant-based foods sector. One of many measures of an industry’s growth and success is the fact that it needs its own trade association.

Second, membership in the PBFA has soared since the organization was founded by a total of 23 food companies. For example, a check of PBFA’s website reveals that there are now more than 50 member companies that make plant-based dairy alternatives.

PBFA also has 13 organization investors; these investment firms have all invested in one or more plant-based food companies. In other words, these plant-based food companies are attracting a fair amount of investor money.

And third, the PBFA reported earlier this year that, for the 52-week period ending in April 2019, sales of plant-based foods totaled $4.5 billion, up 11 percent over the 52-week period ending in April 2018. Among other categories, plant-based cheese sales were up 19 percent, plant-based yogurt sales were up 39 percent, and plant-based milk sales (at $1.9 billion) were up 6 percent.

So, by several measures, the plant-based food business in general and plant-based dairy alternatives in particular are enjoying some pretty impressive advances. But as with many if not most growing industries, they are also starting to face some new challenges.

One of these issues was noted recently by John Mackey, co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods. In a recent interview with CNBC, Mackey noted that Whole Foods gave plant-based meat start-up Beyond Meat its first shot at selling its vegan “chicken” strips.

But Mackey isn’t sold on the health benefits of plant-based meats. Some of the brands that “are taking the world by storm, if you look at the ingredients, they are super, highly processed foods,” he told CNBC. “I don’t think eating highly processed foods is healthy.”

As we’ve noted previously, most if not all plant-based dairy alternatives tend not to have very short ingredient lists, nor do their ingredient lists have very appetizing-sounding ingredients (especially compared to the short ingredient lists for traditional dairy products).

For example, the ingredients in Daiya’s Monterey Jack Style Farmhouse Block are: filtered water, tapioca starch, coconut oil, vegan natural flavors, pea protein isolate, non-GMO expeller pressed canola and/or safflower oil, chicory root extract, sea salt, xanthan gum, lactic acid (vegan), tricalcium phosphate, pea starch, potato protein, vegan enzyme, coconut cream.

Or Fresh Vegan Mozzarella from Miyoko’s Creamery contains the following: filtered water, organic cashews, organic coconut oil, organic tapioca, agar, organic cultured sugar, sea salt, organic sunflower lecithin, and cultures. On top of this lengthy ingredient list is the emergence of some reports that conditions in the cashew industry aren’t exactly worker-friendly.

That ties in with the issue of sustainability. For the last several years, it has seemed that plant-based foods have been given sort of a “free pass” in the area of sustainability. If it comes from plants, it has to be more sustainable than if it comes from animals, right?

Well, not necessarily. For example, the aforementioned cashews aren’t grown in the US; instead, they have what might be called a less-than-ideal path from the farm to the processing plant to US manufacturers and consumers. Hard to believe that’s more sustainable than a local dairy farm supplying milk to a local cheese or fluid milk plant (or, frankly, any domestically sourced milk processed and consumed in the US).

Then there’s the nutritional aspect of plant-based dairy alternatives. Recently, a nutritionist warned in the online journal BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health that the move to plant-based and vegan diets risks worsening an already low intake of choline, an essential nutrient involved in brain health. The primary sources of dietary choline are beef, eggs, dairy products, fish and chicken, with much lower levels found in nuts, beans and cruciferous vegetables.

Also, several medical and nutrition organizations recently recommended plain milk, breast milk, infant formula and water as part of a new set of beverage recommendations for kids through the age of five. These groups cautioned against plant-based non-dairy milks, saying they provide no unique nutritional value.

Finally, Lisa Y. Lefferts, senior scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, recently stated that FDA “should have done a more thorough job in assessing the safety of soy leghemoglobin,” a key ingredient in the Impossible Burger, before okaying it as a color additive.

And so it will continue for the plant-based dairy and meat alternatives businesses. The bigger they get, the more scrutiny they will be subject to, pretty much like the traditional animal-based dairy and meat industries have been.

But at least the plant-based alternatives industry won’t have to worry about one threat the traditional dairy and meat industries have faced seemingly forever: imitation products. How do you imitate something that’s already an imitation?.


Dick Groves

Dick Groves has been publisher/editor of Cheese Reporter since 1989. He has over 35 years experience covering the dairy industry. His weekly editorial is read and referenced throughout the world.
For more information, call 608-316-3791 dgroves@cheesereporter.com

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