While it's been around for a while, plant-based cheese has only captured a tiny fraction of the market because products still don't deliver for many consumers, who would like to make more sustainable or ethical choices, but aren’t willing to compromise on taste or performance, claim players in the emerging animal-free dairy segment.
Arguing that animal proteins - particularly casein - deliver functionality (stretchiness) that is very hard to replicate with plant-based proteins, startups in the 'animal-free' dairy segment are genetically engineering microbes to produce casein and other components of cow's milk - without cows - via a fermentation process.
To find out how consumers in different markets might view this technology, Berlin-based Formo - one of a handful of startups in the field - funded an online consumer survey conducted by a researcher at the University of Bath, UK, in late 2020, with consumers in Brazil (1,020), Germany (1,051), India (825), the UK (1,249) and the USA (1,009).
Respondents were first required to read a “simple and transparent overview” of Formo’s (LegenDairy’s) mozzarella (see box below), shown a “standard depiction’ of mozzarella (paneer for the Indian respondents) “set against a neutral background,” and then asked questions including:
- ‘Would you be willing to try LegenDairy's new mozzarella?’
- ‘Would you be willing to purchase LegenDairy’s new mozzarella?’
Willingness to try the animal-free mozzarella was highest in India (93.4%), followed by Brazil (92%) Germany (75.9%), the UK (67.4%), and then the US (64.9)%, with a similar pattern of responses in the question about willingness to purchase, said study co-authors University of Bath honorary research associate Dr Christopher Bryant, and Oscar Zollman Thomas, business analyst at Formo, which is planning to “bring animal-free cheese to consumers in a product demonstration later this year.”
Compared with the UK and Germany, said Dr. Bryant, "the USA was on average slightly less enthusiastic, but exhibited more polarized responses, with a higher proportion of respondents at each end of the scale, stating in greater numbers that they would either definitely purchase [27.2%] or that they definitely would not [9.1%].”
Consumers were required to read the following descriptive passage before proceeding with the online survey:
“LegenDairy foods is launching a new mozzarella product, made without any animals involved. Instead of relying on cows for milk, LegenDairy uses a process similar to that of beer or soy-sauce production where microorganisms produce the ingredients. The main ingredients of traditional cheese are the proteins whey and casein - these are what the microorganism makes.
To begin this process, the part of cow DNA that makes milk proteins is copied and inserted into the microorganisms' genes. Through fermentation, these microorganisms start to produce proteins, just the same as the proteins a cow would make. These proteins are collected from the microorganisms and turned into products such as mozzarella. Real protein and real mozzarella.
LegenDairy mozzarella production doesn't involve any animals (nor the antibiotics that animals are LegenDairy fed), doesn't contain lactose, has a much lower carbon footprint than regular cheese and it tastes and behaves exactly the same as regular mozzarella.”
Hypothetical animal-free cheese product rated above ‘vegan nut-based cheese’ on taste
Asked to rate the hypothetical animal-free cheese against ‘premium cheese,’ ‘basic cheese,’ and ‘vegan nut-based cheese,’ the animal-free variety ranked higher than all three for ethical and environmental criteria, and was viewed as slightly less tasty, nutritious or natural than premium cheese, equally as tasty – and more nutritious and healthy – than basic cheese.
It scored more highly than vegan nut-based cheese on taste, ethics and the environment, but was perceived as slightly less natural, said the study, which was published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems.
“In all countries, vegan nut-based cheese was rated significantly below all three alternative products, including animal free cheese. Across all countries, animal-free cheese was perceived clearly as the most ethical and environmental product that participants rated, followed by the nut-based vegan product.”
Dr Bryant added: “Seeing the growing consumer groups of flexitarians and young people driving adoption of animal-free cheese is a big indicator that these products will appeal to consumers far beyond the niche markets of current vegan cheese.”
Younger consumers more open to animal-free cheese?
Level of education “was not a strong predictor of acceptance in any country apart from India,” said the authors, who noted that “younger consumers were more likely to be willing to purchase animal-free dairy cheese” and that, “Those identifying as more politically liberal indicated a higher likelihood of purchasing in the UK and USA.”
They added: “In terms of an urban-rural divide in acceptance, no significant relationships were observed for Brazil, Germany, India or the USA, yet a small relationship was found between living in a more urban area and increased purchase intent in the UK.”
Animal-free cheese has broader appeal than cell-cultured meat (although it all depends how you ask the question)
Although the wording of many consumer studies into new technologies varies considerably, rendering some findings of limited value (spoiler alert, ‘synthetic,’ ‘fake,’ and ‘lab-grown’ meat don’t poll as well as ‘slaughter-free’ and ‘cultivated’ meat), and some commentators say any studies asking consumers about hypothetical products should be taken with a pinch of salt; Formo's research suggests a higher degree of interest and enthusiasm for animal-free dairy than cell-cultured meat, claim the authors.
“When juxtaposed against research into animal-free meat acceptance, the findings of this research suggest that animal-free dairy cheeses will see both faster adoption and less societal pushback than cultivated meat products.”
‘Dairy products seem to be particularly difficult to give up’
Several consumer studies suggest that dairy products are the hardest foods to give up for consumers who seek to reduce or eliminate animal foods from their diets, said the study.
“Data indicates that dairy products seem to be particularly difficult to give up. In a survey of motivated vegans, vegetarians, and meat-reducers, Humane League Labs (2014) found that dairy was the food that respondents most often said they found hard to give up. Of respondents, 49% said that dairy was difficult to remove from their diet, compared to just 34% who said eggs were hard to avoid, 17% who said fish and seafood, 11% who said chicken, and just 3% who said beef and pork were challenging to abstain from.
Similarly, Grassian (2020) identifies a hierarchy of foods that those reducing their animal product consumption prioritize and found that those abstaining from animal products were least likely to avoid dairy and eggs compared to other animal products."
Study limitations: ‘We are not able to account for how preferences may be shaped by future marketing efforts’
Given that consumers in a real-world retail setting would not be given such a detailed description of the production process, and the branding, marketing and labeling of animal-free cheese is yet to be determined, however, the authors (one of whom is a Formo company executive, and therefore not a disinterested party) acknowledge that their study has limitations.
“Whilst we sought to lay bare the nature of animal-free dairy by providing a straightforward and neutral account of the process and its impacts, we are not able to account for how preferences may be shaped by future marketing efforts by animal-free dairy companies or indeed lobbying efforts against them.
“Should particularly severe naming restrictions be applied to animal-free dairy [a possibility in Europe, note the authors] then an encumbered consumer uptake of these new products could be anticipated.”
‘The market for animal-free dairy will be primarily driven by consumers not currently being served by the plant-based cheese sector’
That said, the findings overall are encouraging, they said: “The strongest predictor of any outwardly observable variables were current levels of cheese consumption.
“Rather than showing the most ardent cheese consumers as averse to animal-free dairy products, this research found the opposite, highlighting both the openness of consumers to new products that can deliver familiar experiences and also showcasing that the market for animal-free dairy will be primarily driven by consumers not currently being served by the plant-based cheese sector.”
Animal-free dairy ice cream and frozen desserts are already on the market in the US
In the US, a handful of ice creams and frozen desserts featuring Perfect Day’s animal-free whey protein (produced via microbial fermentation) have recently hit the market via brands including Brave Robot, Nick’s, and Graeter’s.
The marketing varies, but each features the phrase ‘animal-free’ on the front of pack, the Perfect Day logo, and a milk allergen warning, while the protein is listed on the ingredients list as ‘non-animal whey protein.’
It’s still early days, but the animal-free dairy category - pioneered by Perfect Day - is beginning to heat up, with a flurry of startups recently emerging from stealth mode including Change Foods and New Culture (San Francisco, CA), Remilk and Imagindairy (Israel), Formo (Germany) and Those Vegan Cowboys (Belgium). Pic credit: GettyImages-Artis777
- Brave new ‘animal-free’ world: When animal products are no longer made from animals, what do we call them? (And are they vegan?)
- Animal-free dairy co Change Foods closes $2.1m seed round, gears up for 2023 launch
- Animal-free dairy category heats up, with mainstream dairy companies exploring partnerships, says Imagindairy
- Animal-free dairy: New Culture plans 2023 launch of Mozzarella – minus the cows
- Wow no cow! Leonardo DiCaprio hails Perfect Day’s ‘forward-looking vision’ as lifecycle assessment shows non-animal whey protein has far lower environmental impact
*Read the study in full HERE.