Danone talks alt dairy, from ‘exciting’ animal-free proteins to ‘dairy-like’ technology in Silk NextMilk

By Elaine Watson contact

- Last updated on GMT

Takoua Debeche: 'We’ve been testing our products versus dairy milks with consumers in home and out of home, and they delivered a parity score versus dairy milk in terms of preference and similarity...'
Takoua Debeche: 'We’ve been testing our products versus dairy milks with consumers in home and out of home, and they delivered a parity score versus dairy milk in terms of preference and similarity...'

Related tags: Dairy alternatives, Danone North America, Danone, Silk NextMilk

A leading player in plant-based dairy with its Silk and So Delicious brands, Danone North America has made significant strides in improving the taste and texture of plant-based cheese, yogurt, and milk over the past 12 months, says chief research & innovation officer Takoua Debeche, but it’s also excited by new technologies such as precision fermentation.

Speaking at FoodNavigator-USA’s ‘Where next for Dairy Alternatives?’ webinar yesterday (now available on demand here​: click on the grey 'on demand' tab, then 'login' to the session), Debeche said: “I am excited by all these new technologies​ [which rival General Mills is also exploring via a ‘development brand’ containing animal-free dairy proteins called Renegade Creamery​].

“I'm a scientist by training and I do believe in the role of science to solve some of the food challenges we’re facing. So at Danone we’re following technologies such as precision fermentation, producing the animal protein without the animal ​[expressing dairy proteins in genetically engineered microbes] andcell cultured​ [dairy].

“In beverages, milk, yogurt, and frozen desserts and novelties, we have demonstrated that we can achieve a lot with only plant-based ingredients. The main challenge today is plant-based cheese; we know how to deliver cheese flavor and we’ve made a lot of progress on texture and melting.

“However, in plant-based cheese there is still a way to go with stretchability, so we’re continuing to look at a combination of plant-based proteins to mimiccasein​ [a dairy protein], but I do also believe that precision fermentation will also help for sure for cheese.   

“These technologies are not mature yet, but we believe that they can be very interesting to solve some of the current challenges in plant-based cheese, really to replace the gelling and stretching properties of casein, so we are following those technologies for sure.”

Cheese: Experimenting with corn prolamin

So Delicious Cheese Alternatives-Danone-credit-North-America

That said, when it comes to 100% plant-based cheese (a market in which Danone operates with the So Delicious and Follow Your Heart brands), the R&D team has made great strides, she said.

"In the past couple of years, we’ve made amazing progress on improving the taste but also the functionality of plant-based cheese when it comes to melting and stretching using plant-based proteins.

“We’ve been assessing hundreds of ingredients from all around the world, and we've been experimenting with corn prolamin/zein and it’s a very interesting protein in terms of functionality for stretching and gelling, but flavor is something that still needs to be improved.

“We need products that not only have the right texture but also the right taste.”

PICTURE-1-silk nextmilk and so delicious wondermilk
Silk NextMilk and So Delicious WonderMilk will launch in the US in January 2022. Image credit: Danone North America

Silk NextMilk, So Delicious WonderMilk: How can we provide those dairy-like experiences?’

When it comes to plant-based milks, by far the largest category in dairy alternatives, she said, “Despite the huge category momentum, and the double-digit growth that we've been experiencing in plant-based categories for quite some time now, there is a gap, because if we look at household penetration, 90% of people buy a dairy milks, but only 40% of people buy plant-based based milk.

“We also know that more than 50% of consumers tell us that what has kept them from switching to plant based is taste and texture that is not matching their expectations, so we know that closing those barriers is essential, so what we've been focusing on is how can we provide those dairy-like experiences?

“Our main objective ​[with upcoming launches Silk NextMilk and So Delicious WonderMilk] was to develop plant-based beverages that taste and perform like dairy in applications.

“So we worked first on constructing each of the dairy milk attributes from a sensory perspective, nutritional perspective, and even psychological perspective, then we worked to rebuild those attributes with plant-based ingredients.”

She added: “We’ve been testing our products versus dairy milks with consumers in home and out of home, and they delivered a parity score versus dairy milk in terms of preference and similarity.”

‘Milk has positive flavor notes, but also negative flavor notes like sulfur, eggs, sourness, saltiness and bitterness’

The flavor of milk is “very complex,” ​said Debeche. “It has positive flavor notes, but also negative flavor notes like sulfur, eggs, sourness, saltiness and bitterness. So we tried to match each of those flavor attributes to provide a very round milk aftertaste and flavor.

“Then we looked at mouthfeel, which is linked to the size of fat particles and the melting curve of fat particles, so we had to reconstitute that melting profile with coconut oil and sunflower oil and a blend of coconut oil and coconut cream. We are also using soy as a high quality of protein, and oat for the creaminess and to round out the profile.

She added: “We also have some chicory root fiber in there to mimic the lubricity or the mouthfeel of dairy milk, and gums also have an important role as an emulsifier.”

‘Silk NextMilk was mainly designed for consumers to drink out over glass, while So Delicious WonderMilk was designed with baking and cooking applications in mind…’

Asked about the difference between Silk NextMilk and So Delicious WonderMilk, she said: “They were developed using the same approach, to deconstruct dairy milk, and then mimic each attribute using plant-based ingredients – so they both contain soy, oats, and coconut, but the proportions of the ingredients are different.

“The difference is mainly in applications. Silk NextMilk was mainly designed for consumers to drink out over glass, while So Delicious WonderMilk was designed with baking and cooking applications in mind, from waffles and potatoes to mac and cheese, and we are very, very pleased by its performance.

She added: “We have also developed these recipes to be used in applications like coffee or breakfast cereals and we have tested both formulations in non-foamed coffee ​[they are not billed as ‘barista’ products], and they perform very well. We are also going to launch So Delicious WonderMilk frozen desserts and novelties in early 2022.”

Lactose-free, vitamins, calcium, 30% fewer calories than dairy

As for nutrition, both products are lactose-free; provide vitamin A, D, B12, Riboflavin, calcium, and phosphorus; and 4g of complete protein from soy [half the amount in regular dairy milk], with 30% fewer calories than dairy milk.

According to Debeche: “We are trying to deliver 8g protein in the next generation of the products, but we believe that 4g already delivers a very good benefit that consumers are looking for.”

Chief customer officer: We know that 70% of consumers that are buying Silk plant-based milk today are not buying [Silk] yogurt’

Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA last week, chief customer officer Kristina Cole said the company has incorporated shopper data and insights from partners as it develops its plant-based portfolio.  

“For example, we just launched the Silk [plant-based] Greek-style yogurt​,​ and we know that 70% of consumers that are buying Silk plant-based milk today are not buying the yogurt; they may not even be aware that Silk has a Greek offering.

Silk Greek Style Danone
"70% of consumers that are buying Silk plant-based milk today are not buying the yogurt..." Image credit: Danone North America

“So we’re partnering with our customers to specifically target consumers with couponing to try and get that ​[new yogurt] on the shopping list and available through online activation.”

She added: “We’ve seen a significant acceleration in e-commerce, so search becomes a key strategy and we’re also seeing the growing role of storytelling online as well as partnering with customers on shopper data."

‘Plant-based options are now all rolling under this [umbrella] of ‘healthy’ or ‘better for you’

 While not everyone agrees that plant-based options are healthier than regular dairy, Danone has developed plant-based dairy products with a range of protein levels and fortifies them with vitamins and minerals, she said: [“For many consumers] plant-based options are now all rolling under this ​[umbrella] of ‘healthy’ or ‘better for you.”

She added: “29% of consumers report that they are consuming more functional food and beverages and 40% of consumers have identified high protein as an important element to them when making decisions about food along with sugar options​. We’ve also seen an acceleration in our Activia business because of growing interest in immune health.”

“We’ve also seen an overall increase in organic dairy milk consumption, and with our Horizon Organic dairy brand, there was also that dynamic of having families at home 24:7 during the pandemic, so people were buying more than usual, but it’s also because of growing interest in health and wellness.

“We just launched Horizon Growing Years​, which has prebiotics ​[from chicory root fiber], choline and ​[the long chain omega-3 fatty acid] DHA, we’re finding that it's being used as a transition milk, but consumed by a broader base of younger kids.”

  • Watch FoodNavigator-USA’s ‘Where next for Dairy Alternatives​?’ webinar on demand here​: If you’re already registered, click on the grey 'on demand'​ tab, then 'login' to watch the session. If you’re not yet registered, register here.

Danone Q3 results: 'Performance in plant-based was penalized this quarter by supply and logistic issues'

Oikos new look

In North America, growth was led by strong performances from Oikos, Two Good, Activia, International Delight and Stok in the third quarter.

The performance of the plant-based portfolio (Silk, So Delicious), however, was “impacted by supply and logistic disruptions hampering Danone’s ability to produce and serve customer demand​.”

Speaking on the earnings call earlier this week, Danone chief financial, technology and data officer Juergen Esser said: “Oikos and Two Good both delivered an excellent performance going well into double digit territory and gaining share in the Greek segment... Activia delivered mid to high single digit growth, and International delight and Stok delivered high single digit growth with resilient share performance.

“Performance in plant-based was penalized this quarter by supply and logistic issues that impacted our ability to produce and serve customer demand in a number of product groups.

“It also limited our ability to execute some of our restaging initiatives, to the extent we initially planned, and those combined effects led to subdued growth over the quarter at low single digit levels. However the last few weeks have shown sequential improvement on both service levels and market share.”

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