Plant-based dairy struggles to compete with traditional dairy in nutritional content, texture, and taste. These shortcomings impede market acceptance of alternative dairy by limiting their widespread use and product applications. Without employing novel technologies like precision fermentation to improve these aspects of alternative dairy, plant-based dairy may hit a glass ceiling.
Plant-Based Dairy Lacks Adequate Nutritional Value
One of the current criticisms of plant-based milks is that they fail to deliver the same nutritional value as their dairy counterparts. Remember USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for milk substitutes that we mentioned in our previous article on the State of the Industry? Currently, of all the plant-based milks, only soy-based milks fortified with calcium, Vitamin A, and Vitamin D meet the nutritional requirements to be considered substitutes. All other plant-based milks are nutritionally inferior.
For alternative dairy, achieving nutritional equivalence is not only important for market adoption at the individual level, so that consumers intake alternative dairy products as part of their well-balanced diet, but it’s also important for acceptance in government programs. Nutritional equivalence gives government programs like the Women Infant and Children and school lunch programs in the U.S. reason to treat alternative dairy as interchangeable with traditional dairy. And because of nutrition, many government programs have yet to adopt alternative dairy. It’s also the dairy industry’s most compelling argument for reserving labeling terms like “milk” exclusively for dairy milk. So, improving the nutritional content of plant-based milks is critical to the success of alternative dairy. In our upcoming third and final post of this State of the Industry series, we’ll explore how precision fermentation can solve this!
Dairy milk is not only a great source of protein, energy, and fat, but it’s also a great source of vitamins and minerals like Vitamin C, Vitamin B12, calcium, and phosphorus. And, it’s composed in a way that our bodies are able to digest a lot of those nutrients easily. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) uses a protein ranking standard called the Digestible Indispensable Amino Acid Score (DIAAS). The DIAAS is a digestibility index that accounts for how much protein content the body is actually able to absorb through the small intestine and therefore how well the protein contributes to the body’s amino acid requirements.
Milk protein, for example, has a digestibility index of 145% for adults, meaning that all the protein from cow’s milk can be digested and absorbed by the body. Almond milk, on the other hand, has a DIAAS of only 39% for adults. Soy milk, which is generally recognized as the next best nutritionally to cow’s milk, has a digestibility score of 107.6% This digestibility score shows just how far plant-based milks have to go to reach the same protein digestibility as dairy milk. In general, animal-derived ingredients have higher digestibility scores compared to plant-based ingredients. Ways to improve digestibility of plant proteins include mycelial fermentation (a method that the company MycoTechnology is pioneering), which generates bioactives, or supplementation with probiotics, which changes the gut microbiota to help absorb the amino acids from plant proteins. While one approach is to aid with plant protein digestibility, another is to instead replicate animal proteins for use in plant-based products. This is exactly what precision fermentation promises: to create animal-free animal proteins that are easily digestible for inclusion in any food or drink!
Alternative Dairy Labeling
The labeling challenges that the alternative dairy industry face today are directly related to nutritional content. In fact, one of the main arguments of Wisconsin’s Senator Tammy Baldwin’s Dairy Pride Act (called the Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, Milk, and Cheese To Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday Act) is that plant-based milks “do not have an overall nutritional content similar to real milk and that most have significantly less protein than real milk and are not always fortified with calcium and vitamin D”. This bill, which was introduced to congress in April of 2021 but has yet to pass, attempts to block plant-based milks from bearing the label “milk”. It argues that consumers will either confuse plant-based milks as being nutritionally equivalent substitutes to dairy milks or will think that plant-based milks do in fact contain milk because of the use of the term “milk”. If plant-based milks were nutritionally equivalent to dairy milk, however, this bill would hardly have legs to stand on.
In response to this bill and feeling pressure from both the dairy and alternative dairy industries, the FDA released their own Draft Guidance for Industry on the labeling of plant-based milks. While FDA is careful to limit this Draft Guidance only to plant-based milks and not other alternative dairy products, the Guidance explains FDA’s stance that plant-based milks should be permitted to use the term “milk”, demonstrating evidence that the consumers are not confused by plant-based milks. The Guidance does, however, echo the Dairy Pride Act in calling out plant-based milks’ nutritional deficiency. The Agency suggests that alternative dairy companies include disclaimers on their packaging to indicate how these products stack up nutritionally compared to dairy milk. For example, the Guidance suggests that packaging bears language like “Contains a lower amount of potassium than milk”. While this may be an interim solution to help consumers make educated purchases, the better play for alternative dairy is to create products that compete or even out-compete dairy milk on the nutrition front.
Call to Action: If you feel strongly about the ability for plant-based beverages to use the term milk or would like to add to the discussion, drop the FDA a note! The Agency will be accepting comments on this Draft Guidance until the end of April 2023.
Alternative Dairy Government Programs
Similar to labeling, inclusion of alternative dairy in government programs hinges directly on its nutritional equivalence to dairy. Given the scale of government food programs like Women Infants and Children and school lunches, these programs provide new foods the exposure to quickly become household staples. The Women Infant and Children (WIC) program, for example, accounted for an estimated 56% of U.S. infant formula in 2018 and covered over 6 million participants in 2020. In November 2022, WIC proposed a rule change to enable substitution of plant-based milks in place of dairy milks in their food packages. To do this, however, alternative dairy products would need to meet the nutritional requirements set by the USDA Dietary Guidelines for milk. This proposed rule change indicates the U.S. government’s simultaneous willingness to usher in alternative dairy and hesitancy towards adopting alternative dairy given the nutritional shortcomings.
School lunch programs are another avenue by which alternative dairy could gain huge market share and become household staples. Recently, the California state government earmarked $100 million for securing plant-based ingredients for school lunches through the Child Nutrition Act of 2022, AB558. Maggie Neola, a dietician with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, specifically cited the need for access to health meals that promote overall wellness and support children’s immune systems. Luckily, precision fermentation and TurtleTree can help with this too! Our first bioactive protein, lactoferrin (LF+), provides immune support. Other states are working on similar legislation. The New York Senate has drafted S996 which requires schools to provide plant-based options for those who request it. Similarly, Illinois has passed House Bill 4089 which requires school districts to provide plant-based options that “complies with federal nutritional mandates”.
On top of individual health considerations, alternative dairy’s current shortcomings in nutritional value have far reaching implications in this nascent industry’s success and therefore the planet’s health. What plant-based dairy lacks, though, precision fermentation can provide in surplus. Improved nutrition is just one of the ways in which precision fermentation can bring about the next generation of alternative dairy. Check out our third and final State of the Industry post to learn more.
Plant-Based Dairy Struggles to Recreate the Experience of Traditional Dairy
Even if alternative dairy products are better for the environment, they still need to be craveable to achieve market adoption. A survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) found that taste was the most important factor for 82% of consumers, followed by price (66%) and health/nutrition (58%). Sustainability accounted for only 31%. Regardless of how well-intentioned consumers are about buying climate-friendly foods, taste still prevails when standing in front of the supermarket aisle.
One study of plant-based cheeses found that only 32% or respondents thought plant-based cheese tasted as good as regular cheese, and 34% of respondents disagreed. The remaining people surveyed were indifferent. Alternative dairy has a long way to go in competing with traditional dairy on taste!
Texture is another important factor where plant-based dairy products fall short. A few chief complaints: they often lack the creaminess of dairy milk or the stretch of cheese. Texture is important for mouthfeel and general satisfaction with a food, but it also influences product applications. The extent to which a plant-based product can recreate the stretch and meltability of cheese dictates whether you could add that product to a frozen pizza. The ability to mimic milk’s frothing determines whether it can be used in a latte. Many plant-based cheeses and some ice creams currently use gums or carrageenan to thicken and firm the texture. Carrageenan is an extract found in red seaweed and it’s a hot topic of debate. While it’s been used by the food industry for centuries, some claim it contributes to gastrointestinal inflammation. The FDA did review carrageenan, however, and continues to list the ingredient as “Generally Recognized as Safe”. Either way, it would be great if alternative dairy could better mimic the texture of dairy by including ingredients naturally found in dairy. The good news is that’s just what precision fermentation offers. Stay tuned for the next post in this State of the Industry series to learn how!
As we’ve just covered, the first generation of alternative dairy struggles to compete with and replace traditional dairy because of its shortcomings in nutritional value, taste, and texture. Creating animal-free dairy ingredients via precision fermentation, though, can solve this problem and bring about the 2nd generation of alternative dairy, powered by innovative technology and filled with empathy and care for people and the planet. In our final post of this State of the Industry series, we’ll explain how precision fermentation can mitigate the shortcomings of plant-based dairy and unlock a new level of alternative dairy.
Sustainable nutrition for all is just around the corner. Reach out to us to find out how you can be a part of this.