How Danone deconstructed milk to create a more realistic plant-based option

As beverage makers pack the dairy aisle with plant-based offerings, Danone North America is hoping that going small will help it find the next big thing in the category: an alternative milk that tastes like the real thing.

Danone, the France-based manufacturer of plant-based brands Silk and So Delicious, took milk and deconstructed everything about it — its taste, nutritional components, molecular composition and even the nostalgic feeling it created in the consumer — to formulate its two new dairy-like alternatives, Silk Nextmilk and So Delicious Wondermilk.

Danone North America executives are optimistic that the products, which took two years to develop, will deliver the necessary taste and texture to attract milk drinkers who have wanted to make the switch to plants but have found these attributes lacking. 

Roughly half of shoppers say the texture and taste of plant-based milk doesn’t match their expectations of dairy, Danone said, citing IRI data. It could help explain why conventional milk consumption is double that of plants: An estimated 94% of U.S. households currently purchase milk, IRI noted, while for plant-based milk the figure is closer to 40%. 

“We’ve cracked that code for that group of consumers who have been reluctant to come over with innovation that finally delivers on what they’re looking for,” said John Starkey, president of plant-based food and beverages for Danone North America. “We’re able to really overcome that barrier that held them back for so long.”

The plant-based milk category is crowded with offerings made predominantly from oats, soy, cashews and almonds. Nearly four in 10 U.S. households purchased plant-based milk in 2020, with sales totaling $2.5 billion, about 20% of the total milk category. 

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Courtesy of Danone

 

Food manufacturers have moved aggressively to make plant-based products, including meat and dairy, as close to their animal-based counterparts as possible to attract consumers. NotCo is producing Not Milk, which is made with water, pea protein, sunflower oil, cabbage juice concentrate and pineapple juice concentrate, while Oatly, as its name implies, has found success with oats.

Impossible Foods, which displayed a plant-based milk prototype in 2020, and Beyond Meat, which has filed for a trademark on the Beyond Milk name, are no doubt hoping to recreate their success producing faux beef, chicken and sausages.

Danone’s research and innovation team tried out thousands of different ingredients before settling on oat milk, soy protein and coconut oil, coconut milk and coconut cream, among other ingredients, for Silk Nextmilk and So Delicious Wondermilk. It was an arduous process because the company needed to recreate milk’s inherently complicated profile, said Takoua Debeche, chief research and innovation officer for Danone North America.

“We deconstructed each element of dairy milk and then we worked on rebuilding it using some plant-based ingredients,” she said. “The challenge is all these blocks have interactions together.”

One of the biggest obstacles is milk’s unique taste profile, which combines sour, bitter and salty with sweet and creamy. In addition, Danone had to replicate the special mix of saturated and unsaturated fat found in milk that provides its silky feel and enables it to coat the tongue. The company was able to tap into its experience with dairy, where it produces brands like Horizon Organic milk and Two Good and Activia yogurts, to help it duplicate the experience. 

The dairy giant also wanted the new products to match or exceed the nutrient levels found in traditional milk, including vitamins A, D and B12, riboflavin and calcium, while containing fewer calories. In doing so, Danone also had to hide the flavors of the plants it was using to create the milk. 

The new Danone milks, which come in whole or 2% fat, share many of the same ingredients, but Debeche said they are targeted to consumers depending on the specific drinking occasion.

Silk Nextmilk is designed to be consumed on its own, while So Delicious Wondermilk, which also can be used this way, is meant for cooking and baking. Danone also plans to use Wondermilk for a new line of So Delicious cones and pints of ice cream. These products will hit shelves in January, with Silk Nextmilk being sold in national grocery stores and So Delicious Wondermik appearing in natural channels.

Danone said the Silk Nextmilk and So Delicious Wondermilk are not going to replace the company’s other plant-based offerings. Instead, they will fill an existing void in its plant-based portfolio with shoppers.  

“There are consumers who have different tastes in every single household, and there are consumers who love to taste existing plant-based beverages and are very loyal to those products,” Starkey said. “This is that next wave of growth that we can bring to the category and our business.”

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