“Our mission is to champion healthier and more responsible food for all, which means as a chief food player, we need to have an active role in changing the food system … because we are at a turning-point [environmentally] and we need to make some changes” to be more sustainable, Caroline Sorlin, chief venture officer at Bel, told FoodNavigator-USA.
Part of this change is the company’s ongoing and aggressive efforts to reduce the impact of its dairy-based business through regenerative agriculture and other initiatives, but this is not enough, Sorlin said.
“We need to find other solutions. And so we are rebalancing our portfolio to be half alternative-dairy, which includes our existing plant-based products, including our plant-based BabyBel, Nurishh portfolio, and other products, which we think taste great, but which we think we can do better,” including around taste, nutrition and function, she explained.
Sorlin acknowledged this is a tall order given the challenges of recreating dairy cheese’s ability to melt and stretch when heated, complex flavor-profile and nutrient-density – all of which remain stubborn sticking points for players across the plant-based cheese category.
“We think we can do better, and doing better means exploring the world of the plant kingdom. But doing that, is a nightmare for people like us,” Sorlin admitted, laughing. “We realized we cannot do it by ourselves, but with help from artificial intelligence we thought we might find the right plants with the right proportions and in the right combination to mimic dairy cheese.”
Enter Climax Foods Inc. – a frontrunner in using artificial intelligence and machine learning to quickly and accurately scour the plant kingdom to find proteins, lipids, flavors, precursors and other elements to recreate animal products, including several high-end cheeses that “no one can tell apart from dairy in blind tastings,” according to Oliver Zahn, CEO and founder of Climax Foods, Inc.
He explained to FoodNavigator-USA that Climax Foods used cheese – “which checks a lot of the boxes of what constitutes a food product because it has a complex protein-lipid-carb maxtrix, is fermented and delivers a lot of functionalities people care about, like melt and stretch” – to train its Deep Plant Intelligence platform to recreate from scratch complex foods using plants much more quickly than people.
Bel’s scale, commitment to sustainability attracted Climax Foods
But as a small team, Climax Foods wasn’t able to take these learnings to the mass market – which is what Bel Foods brings to the partnership.
“Their R&D capabilities are very, very impressive, and they apply a lot of the very similar analytical methods that we use at Climax … and the idea that we could share instrumentation to collect much more data together… was very, very exciting,” Zahn said.
As was the appeal of Bel’s scale and dozens of factories around the globe to make products in large enough quantities and at a price point comparable to dairy so that more people could access them, added Zahn.
He also noted that he was attracted to Bel’s commitment to sustainability and its understanding – an acceptance – of the challenge that animals pose in the food system, based on a “brutal” lifecycle analysis the company undertook several years ago.
“The leadership team is doing as much as possible to convert to plant-based foods as long as they can be equally delicious, equally nutritious and equally affordable, because they want to feed humans good, healthy food, and at the same time do what is right for the planet,” he said.
‘We found … hidden functionalities and protein sources that are very widely available’
In the short time the two companies have worked together, they have already created promising prototypes for plant-based versions of Bel’s beloved BabyBel, which they hope to bring to market by the end of 2024 and which they believe offers better nutrition and taste experience than the existing plant-based version on the market.
“We were a bit surprised at how quickly some of these came together,” Zahn admitted, explaining one reason why so few plant-based cheeses on the market today have protein – a major draw for dairy cheese – is because the plant-based protein isolates available historically are “intrinsically gritty and have very strong flavors.”
“As soon as you had a little bit [of plant-based protein] it really ruins the flavor and texture. And so it is better to just have nutritionally vapid fat-starch matrix that doesn’t have these horrible flavors,” he explained.
But even with this trade off, many existing options don’t melt “like real cheese,” he added.
With the help of Climax Food’s AI platform, “what we found is there are hidden functionalities and protein sources that are very widely available that can be isolated in a very high yields, and when you make these switches for proteins, lipids and other modifications, all of a sudden you can really turn them into true animal product replacements,” he said.
As excited as the companies are about their discoveries and early prototypes, they are waiting to disclose the ingredients, which Sorlin notes are already GRAS, until they have finalized production at scale.
Co-branding is cornerstone in go-to-market strategy
When the new plant-based BabyBel goes to market, it will be co-branded with Climax Foods, as the partnership allows the companies to screen, optimize and commercialize the ingredients they find together.
The companies also plan to launch a full suite of plant-based cheeses from Bel’s iconic line-up in short succession because once it creates that ideal plant-based milk to use as a base, small changes to create different varieties should follow quickly, Zahn said.
The company anticipates fast consumer trial and adoption given Bel’s strong reputation, broad distribution and trusted place in many shoppers’ grocery carts.
The partnership is part of a larger strategy by Bel Group to leverage different technologies to create more environmentally-friendly and nutrient-dense food.
It follows another high-profile collaboration with Superbrewed Food announced last summer to develop cheese with a ‘postbioitc cultured protein’ made through biomass fermentation.