Armored Fresh, the US subsidiary of South Korean food tech firm Armored Fresh Inc., first entered the US market in 2022 by selling its vegan cheese directly to 100-150 New York City-based food stores. From April 6, 2023, the company is set to open its own e-commerce platform and Amazon storefront, allowing it to sell directly to US consumers anywhere in the country. So far, Armored Fresh’s range of almond-based products includes cheese cubes, spreadable cheese, slices, and shredded mozzarella. The company has focused on almond-based products thanks to the nut’s functional and nutritional properties, such as being a source of vitamin E, monosaturated fats, fiber, and minerals such as calcium and magnesium.
But what actually makes these vegan products any different from the myriad of plant-based cheese alternatives on the US market? It’s the patented fermentation process the firm deploys to bring its cheese analogs as close to traditional dairy as possible, we were told.
“Armored Fresh's R&D process focuses on developing plant-based cheeses that can match the taste, nutrition, and texture of animal-based cheeses,” a company spokesperson told DairyReporter. “Our process involves making almond milk first, and then using fermentation technology to improve the taste and texture of the cheese.”
Fermentation is the process of breaking down complex organic compounds into simpler molecules, which can improve the taste, texture and the nutritional value of plant-based cheeses. In traditional cheesemaking, bacteria, such as lactobacillus, is added to fresh milk to convert lactose into lactic acid, the oxidation coagulating the milk protein.
But adopting the method in plant-based cheese manufacture requires more trial and error due to the variety of plant-based mixes that manufacturers create. “Successful fermentation is a complicated process in plant-based cheese production that requires a lot of experience and expertise,” said Armored Fresh’s spokesperson. “Many other brands often skip the fermentation process when making vegan cheese because it can be difficult to implement. However, we have developed patented technology that allows us to maximise the benefits of fermentation.
“We use a unique fermentation process that includes various probiotic strains, including kimchi probiotics. As a result, Armored Fresh vegan cheese boasts a flavor and nutty taste similar to traditional cheese.”
“Our vegan cheese at Armored Fresh is created using a process that prioritises fermentation as a key step, just like in traditional animal-based cheese production. We conducted extensive research to achieve this, and it was a pivotal decision that shaped the direction of Armored Fresh. As a result, our vegan cheese products can showcase exceptional taste, nutrition, and texture.”
Using jam and spices to enhance taste and color
Armored Fresh’s most recent releases are cheese cubes and an American-style sliced cheese suitable for grilling. “Both products use almond milk as a base and are fermented to achieve unique flavors and textures that mimic those of dairy cheese,” the company spokesperson told us.
The cube cheese is a bite-sized snack that can be enjoyed as an aperitif or on-the-go snack and comes in three flavors - cheddar, plain, and blueberry - while the sliced cheese exhibits ‘the same melting properties as dairy cheese when used in grilled cheese sandwiches’.
“We are constantly upgrading our products to use natural ingredients while achieving flavors and colors that are as similar as possible to those of dairy cheese,” the Armored Fresh representative told us.
“For example, we use paprika to give the American sliced cheese a vibrant yellow color, and we use real blueberry jam to emphasize the fruit flavor in the Blueberry-flavored Cube cheese.
“In addition, our patented fermentation process plays a crucial role in creating the unique flavors and textures of both products, which is in line with our goal of providing an experience that is as similar as possible to eating dairy cheese.”
As summer 2023 approaches, the company is preparing to roll out its e-commerce platform to allow plant-based cheese consumers to purchase its products directly from the Armored Fresh website. This is slated to happen from April 6, 2023, with the company also launching an Amazon storefront.
In recent weeks, Armored Fresh also announced it has secured distribution through major US grocery retailer Kroger, which will offer the company’s sliced cheese in more than 170 of its stores, including the King Sooper stores in Colorado and the Fred Meyer stores in Oregon.
‘Creating a perfect substitute is still a challenge’
According to Fact.MR, the global plant-based cheese market is set to grow at a staggering 15.1% CAGR over the next decade (2023-2033). In the US, plant-based cream cheese, cheddar analogs and shredded cheeses are expected to witness high demand over the next 10 years, with shipments of plant-based cheese set to rise 10% during the period.
While demand exists, a key challenge for the segment is how it’s able to compete on flavor, texture and functional properties such as meltability with traditional dairy, in order to attract a wider consumer base. “I believe that there has been significant progress in the field of vegan cheese production,” the Armored Fresh spokesperson told us. “Recent technological advancements have allowed for further improvements in the taste and texture of cheese. However, creating a perfect substitute is still a challenge.”
Achieving price parity is also a significant challenge for plant-based cheese brands, where the production process is often costlier compared to the still much larger dairy cheese market in the US. “ That's why maintaining competitiveness in terms of taste and quality, even as a vegan cheese, is the most important challenge,” said the Armored Fresh rep.
“In addition to providing delicious vegan cheese to consumers, it is important to provide transparency in product information and ingredients, so that they can choose healthy and environmentally friendly products. Through these strategies, we can gain consumer trust and contribute to the growth of the vegan cheese market.”
“We are improving the taste and quality through research and development and striving to create environmentally friendly products,” the spokesperson added.
‘Mindful’ of the environment
But can the plant-based milk industry still rely on its environmental halo to attract eco-conscious consumers? According to Statista, a liter of cow’s milk requires 628 liters of water, while almond milk needs just 371 liters. Yet, amongst the cultivars used to create plant-based milk, almond is the most water-intensive crop to grow. For example, making a 1L of oat milk takes 48L of water, and a liter of soy milk requires around half of that.
In California, which produces 100% of the US commercial supply of the nut, water usage from the industry has caused controversy over the years, particularly given the state’s dry climate.
Armored Fresh says it is exploring other plant bases to make dairy-free products with, although the company’s current range remains based on tis proprietary almond-based mix.
“California, where a lot of almonds are produced, is facing the issue of using a large amount of water in the production of almond milk,” we were told by the company. “To address this issue, various methods are being attempted such as introducing new technologies to use water more efficiently during almond production, building facilities to recycle water, and implementing local water conservation regulations. While these methods may not provide a complete solution to the problem, California is making ongoing efforts to minimize environmental issues through continued research and efforts.
“Moving forward, companies utilizing almonds in their products must continue to find ways to improve environmental benefits in addition to highlighting the nutritious benefits of almond milk over dairy milk. This requires a great deal of consideration for the environment.”
The spokesperson concluded: “Armored Fresh has taken the next steps to ensure they are being mindful of their environmental impact through their technology as well. Armored Fresh have been developing different based formulations for their products. In order to provide a solution to the discussed issue, Armored Fresh decided to ensure that consumers can still receive great tasting products that are made from oats, rice and other base plant-based milk.”