While gluten-free gets all the glory, dairy-free products such as almond and coconut milk are growing at an equally explosive rate, says So Delicious Dairy Free, which has notched up a compound annual growth rate of 30%+ over the past five years, and says the brand is now worth close to $200m at retail.
VP marketing and R&D Mike Murray told FoodNavigator-USA that the brand is now in multiple categories from beverages to non-dairy creamers, frozen desserts, cultured products (yogurt-type products), and culinary products (coconut milk for cooking).
We’ve seen phenomenal growth
Oregon-based Turtle Mountain - which owns the So Delicious Dairy Free brand - has also experimented with new plant-based products such as cashew milk, which is generating positive feedback in the natural retail channel, but has yet to hit mainstream grocery stores, he said.
“We’ve been around for 25 years focusing exclusively on dairy-free. But in the past five or six years, we’ve seen phenomenal growth.
“Gluten-free is what everyone talks about, but it’s our belief that dairy free is one of, if not the biggest growth opportunity in food right now.”
A lot of people just prefer almonds and coconuts to soy from a taste and texture standpoint
While soy-based dairy free products have been struggling, products made from almonds and coconuts have been surging, he said.
“If you look at frozen desserts and beverages, soy is a large but declining [segment] whereas coconut and almond are growing very quickly. Some people do have issues with soy, but I think the main reason is that a lot of people just prefer almonds and coconuts from a taste and texture standpoint.”
Consumers mistakenly believe almond milk is naturally high in protein
But what about the nutritional profile of some dairy alternatives, which many dietitians say is not as positive as many consumers tend to assume?
Both almond and coconut milk, for example, are not naturally high in protein, and most dairy-free beverages are fortified with vitamins in order to compete with dairy in the nutritional stakes and contain added gums and starches to create a thicker texture, lengthening the ingredients list.
Said Murray: "We believe in simplicity as a trend, and want to keep ingredients list as short as possible, but we also passionately believe in dairy free, and I don't think the fact that we've added vitamins is a problem for people. People are also used to this in many other products including some dairy products [which are often fortified with vitamin D for example]."
As for protein, So Delicious adds rice and pea protein to its Almond Plus range, in part to address the fact that protein is on-trend, in part because it generates a point of difference vs category rivals Almond Breeze and Silk, and in part because many consumers believe - mistakenly - that it is naturally high in protein, said Murray.
But packing in protein doesn’t work well in every category, he said, noting that the firm had also added rice and pea protein to its cultured almond milk yogurt-type desserts, but has been “dialing this back a bit” recently in order to preserve the taste consumers are looking for.
Who is the dairy-free consumer?
As for the dairy-free consumer, things have changed significantly in recent years, he said.
“In the past we were going after people with lactose intolerance or casein (milk protein) allergy, but now we’re appealing to consumers that care about sustainability and animal rights, are interested in plant-based eating, or, increasingly, just modern consumers looking for new healthy products.”
But he added: “We do fundamentally believe that a diet with low or moderate dairy is better for your health and the environment.”
We’ve explored almost anything you can think of in terms of plant-based ingredients
As for what’s next, expect more innovation within existing segments and moves into new product areas and formats, he said, although he wouldn’t comment specifically on whether the firm is planning launches in hemp, rice, or different nut-based products, adding only that “we’ve explored almost anything you can think of in terms of plant-based ingredients.”
While multiple players in the dairy-alternatives space are enjoying strong growth in almond and coconut-based products right now, So Delicious has always occupied a unique place in the market with strong connections with consumers via social media and its focus on organic and non-GMO, he claimed.
“The majority of our skus are made with organic ingredients or are fully certified organic, but it’s not been possible to do it everywhere and keep an affordable price point, so our almonds are not organic, for example. However, all our products have gone through the non-GMO Project verification process.
“For us, it’s more about labeling transparency.”