First, some stats. Launched in April 2016 in Whole Foods, Ripple refrigerated plant-based milk (fueled by pea protein) is now sold in 15,000+ stores in the US and Canada from Kroger to Target, with sales "well into the 10s of millions last year and growing triple digits," said Lowry.
The product range has also expanded into shelf-stable kids' milks, protein powders and shakes, a barista blend, and Greek-style plant-based yogurts (which are being relaunched this year).
And while no one can predict exactly when, or if, sales of plant-based milks might peak and plateau, it feels as if there is a pretty long runway ahead, he observed.
“When I started Method [Lowry is the co-founder of cleaning products brand Method], the entire green cleaning segment in America was worth $30m, but it’s obviously much bigger than that now, and Method is the largest green cleaning business in the world, and that’s because we were at the front end of a real shift in the way that people were caring for their homes.
“I think something very similar is happening with the shift to plant-based diets, and it’s not about people that have a necessity to go plant based, but people that have a desire to go plant-based, and that’s a much more mainstream proposition.”
But if plant-based milk continues to displace dairy milk, should we pay more attention to its protein, vitamin, and mineral content given that dairy milk is currently a key source of nutrients in the US diet, especially for kids, although it is obviously possible to eat a balanced diet without it?
While rivals have challenged the contention that nut-, grain-, or legume-based milks should match dairy milk from a nutritional perspective, Ripple Foods has historically ruffled feathers in the space with ad campaigns that highlight the nutritional deficiencies and “thin, watery” texture of some plant-based milks (although dairy milk doesn't get a pass, with also Ripple highlighting its sugar and saturated fat content).
By utilizing novel technology that strips out unwanted components (color/flavor) from commercially available plant protein isolates to yield a neutral-tasting protein that can be incorporated into foods and beverages in high quantities, Ripple Foods has designed its milk not simply to match, but to outperform dairy products, said Lowry.
By overcoming the sensory barriers, Ripple has been able to dial up the protein (8g per 8oz) and dial down the sugar (6g per 8oz) to create a soy-, dairy-, and nut-free beverage with 20% fewer calories, a sixth of the saturated fat and half the sugar of 2% dairy milk, and eight times the protein of almond milk, he said.
Each serving also contains 32mg of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acid DHA (from microalgae), 45% of the DV for calcium, 30% of the DV for vitamin D, 10% of the DV for vitamin A and 13% of the DV for iron.
"If we’re going to substitute dairy for something plant based we’ve got to make sure that we’re still getting all those nutrients. But what makes Ripple unique is actually not peas [which have fueled its first wave of products]... We make the purest plant protein anywhere in the world, and all proteins are tasteless, so if they are pure you can make a really nutritious product that doesn’t taste ‘planty.’
“[Our products] taste like dairy and have got the same nutrition and protein content of dairy, whereas most products in the non-dairy space lack protein.”
‘If milk is a ‘lacteal secretion from a hoofed mammal,’ then I’m out’
But does Ripple Foods – which uses the term ‘plant-based milk’ on the front of pack - think that the whole debate over the use of the term ‘milk’ is as important as stakeholders on both sides would have us believe?
According to Lowry: “The dairy industry is playing defense, quite honestly. They are seeing that the plant-based space is encroaching on the dairy space and they are trying to make it harder for the plant-based guys to basically tell consumers what it [plant-based milk/cheese/yogurt etc] is.
"But I’ll tell you this, if milk is a ‘lacteal secretion from a hoofed mammal,’ then I’m out, I don’t need to be 'milk.'”
‘Profound innovation around alternative feedstocks…’
So what’s next for Ripple when it comes to protein sources?
“We’re looking at all sorts of proteins and in fact, some of the things that are most interesting to us are secondary feedstocks,” said Lowry.
“Think about something like sunflower meal, which is a leftover byproduct of making sunflower oil. We just got awarded a $100,000 grant from the Gates Foundation to extract pure protein from that source for very low cost applications like feeding populations that lack protein.
“We’re working on a research and development level on some really profound innovation around alternative feedstocks.”
Synthetic biology, microbial fermentation and designer proteins…
But what about producing protein by printing DNA sequences that instruct yeast or bacteria to express proteins identical to those in eggs or milk in big fermentation tanks, as firms such as Motif Ingredients, Perfect Day and others are exploring?
“Some of those technologies… and [Ripple Foods co-founder] Neil [Renninger] had a synthetic biology company previously [Amyris], use really cool science, but to scale that up and to be the same cost as a soybean is a really big lift.
“So actually we’ve therefore focused on not doing stuff like that and doing just very basic chemistry like you’d do in your kitchen, because when you scale that, it’s very inexpensive, and that’s the real difference here.
“You can have designer proteins that are going to be really expensive and [utilize] really cool science, but we’re trying to reinvent things like milk protein and meat protein, and that stuff is dirt cheap, so you have to have a cheap technology in order to compete with that.”
How much of an edge does Ripple Foods' protein purification technology really deliver over commercially-available plant protein isolates?
Put Ripptein – Ripple’s colorless and neutral-tasting purified pea protein isolate – alongside commercially available pea protein isolates, which can taste “beany and grassy” and you’ll immediately taste the difference, cofounder Dr Neil Renninger told us last year.
“Ripptein gives us the ability to do things that no one else can in the industry. We’ve tried to use commercially available protein isolates in our products in the same way and you can’t get anything close to what we’ve achieved, even using all kinds of flavors and masking agents.
“And the consumer data bears this out. We’re consistently outperforming other pea-based dairy alternatives in the marketplace.”