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Plant-Based Cheese Innovation Improves in Variety and Quality

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Innovation in plant-based dairy alternatives has spread to cheese, where the types and numbers of plant-based cheeses continue to grow. Data from Innova Market Insights shows that the use of protein ingredients in new product launches of alt-cheese – led by chickpea, fava, pea, and potato protein – tripled between 2017 and 2021. More than 500 new products were launched in the past 12 months alone. Dairy alternative cheeses also are gaining consumer acceptance. Consumers surveyed globally by Innova in 2022 responded that dairy alternatives are healthy, tasty, and convenient, and that flavor, health, and cost are most important influencers of purchasing decisions.  

Fats and Starches 

Most plant-based cheeses today feature a combination of fat and starch derived from various nuts, legumes, starchy vegetables, and grains. Coconut and cashew are most used for body, fat, and texture; most typical starches include potato, corn, and tapioca. This fat-starch combination in plant-based cheeses confers a soft solid texture at refrigerator temperatures, along with creaminess and meltability at higher temperatures.  

Improving Nutrition 

Many established alt-cheese ingredients provide little or no protein. In order to better match dairy cheese, manufacturers have begun to increase their use of plant-based protein ingredients. Data from Innova Market Insights shows that protein ingredients in alt-cheese – led by chickpea, fava, pea, and potato protein – tripled between 2017 and 2021.  

Cheese producers can access a range of different proteins for the purpose of improving the product’s nutritional profile. Chickpea protein is emerging as nutrient-rich ingredient that also offers textural and functional benefits for both hard and soft plant-based cheeses. Isolated proteins produced by Israel-based ChickP contain 90% protein. The Israeli company InnovoPro also produces a protein-rich chickpea ingredient for use in plant-based cheese production. Brookyn, NY-based RIND, a producer of cave-aged alt-cheeses, incorporates mung bean and chickpea proteins into its cheese slices, and soy into its soft cheeses. Miyoko’s Creamery has announced a plan to produce dairy-free cottage cheese from watermelon seed milk and sunflower seed milk.  

Replicating Traditional Methods 

Traditional production processes for plant-based cheeses help convert their non-dairy ingredients into products that look, taste, and melt in a way that replicates dairy cheese. Award-winning RIND, for example, produces a soft-ripened, cave-aged Camembert-Bleu blend from a combination of cashews and tofu. The company offers an extended line of aged cheeses built on its Camembert-Bleu base. In Europe, several alt-cheese producers such as La Fauxmagerie are also employing traditional production methods used to produce classic aged cheeses. 

Introducing Precision Fermentation 

Precision fermentation is poised to revolutionize the production of non-dairy cheeses. The precision fermentation process involves engineering microbial DNA to produce whey, casein, or dairy fat that is bioidentical to those components in cows’ milk and cultivating those microbes in a nutrient-rich solution without using animal products. Because products of precision fermentation do not contain genetically modified DNA, they do not need to be labelled as bioengineered, and often carry non-GMO certification. In some applications, the microorganisms themselves, rather than their by-products, are cultivated and harvested as a protein source. 

Perfect Day opened the door to precision fermentation dairy ingredient production. It was first-to-market with its precision-fermented whey protein from genetically engineered microbes. The company supplies its whey to partners such as Betterland Milk, Brave Robot and Graeter’s ice creams, California Performance Co. sports supplements, and Modern Kitchen cream cheese. Bold Cultr, a cream cheese product from General Mills, utilizes dairy protein from precision fermenter Remilk. New Culture focuses on the production of dairy-identical casein protein ingredients. Fooditive, based in the Netherlands, is developing non-dairy versions of several types of casein that will provide cheese-like flavor, texture, meltability, and mouth feel. Swiss start-up Cultivated Bioscience is working on an alternative to animal-derived dairy fat. Although these dairy ingredients are animal-free, some may not consider them to be vegan. 

Vegan proteins can be produced by harvesting and processing the microbes themselves. Nature’s Fynd cultivates the microbe Fusarium flavolapis into a protein-rich, fungus “mat” that is harvested and processed into solid, liquid, and powdered forms of a high quality, plant-based protein. ProteVin, produced by start-up Nextferm, is a yeast-derived, high quality protein that performs like whey but has a neutral flavor and is animal-free.  

Challenges Offer Opportunities 

To gain wide acceptance, plant-based cheeses need to compete with dairy cheese on several factors, including flavor, texture, aroma, performance, and cost. Acceptance in foodservice, including restaurants, also is essential. Common complaints regarding cheese alternatives include ‘off’ flavors, bitter notes, rubbery texture, and tackiness. These can be overcome in certain applications such as sandwiches, where bread plus additional ingredients and condiments can distract from the potential sensory shortcomings of the cheese. Cheese-rich dishes such as lasagna and macaroni and cheese may be less satisfactory, depending on preparation method and other ingredients. 

Product improvements are ongoing. Kerry, for example, recently released its Kerrymaid vegan slice that is formulated with less starch to improve texture and performance. The slices peel, fold, and melt in a way that resembles standard processed dairy cheese slices.   

Plant-based cheese does not yet replicate the nutrition profile of dairy cheese. While protein content of some products is similar to that of dairy cheese, products do not match dairy cheese for content of calcium and potassium, two shortfall minerals in the American diet. Many products also do not contain vitamin B12. Alt-cheeses do outshine dairy cheese nutritionally in two ways – they are cholesterol-free, and most are lower in saturated fat.  

Innovation is expected to continue to move plant-based cheeses closer to full replication of their dairy counterparts, allowing consumers to choose among a growing variety of products that deliver on multiple dimensions. 

Mindy Hermann
Mindy Hermann, MBA, RDN is a food and nutrition communications consultant in metro NY. She enjoys following trends in the food industry and is a frequent contributor to publications such as Today’s Dietitian and The World of Food Ingredients. Mindy also writes trends reports for Innova Market Insights, a global food and beverage market research firm based in Arnhem, Netherlands, as well as articles for professional journals.