Despite being a part of a balanced diet in many cultures, dairy consumption has declined over the past two decades. Consumers, especially those in dairy’s most prominent markets, are concerned about allergens, hormone usage, and perceived unhealthfulness of some dairy products.
As a result, plant-based milk consumption is on the rise as some consumers seek to eliminate dairy from their diets, mainly for health, welfare, or environmental reasons. Statistically speaking, plant-based milk—already a sizable category accounting for 15 percent of all dollar sales of retail milk—experienced a year of significant growth in 2020 (see the full report here).
Despite their popularity, plant-based milk struggles to match some of the nutritional properties of dairy, such as protein levels and essential amino acids. Typically, plant-based beverages are created by maceration, grinding, and filtration of food substances with water (accounting for about 90% of the final product). This process makes the nutritional value of plant-based “milks” incomparable with cow’s milk. But some of these non-dairy plant-based beverages, especially quinoa and soymilk, provide a good source of proteins (see graphic below).
From a nutritional point of view, replacing cow’s milk with non-dairy plant-based beverages leads to a reduced intake of protein, calcium, certain vitamins (i.e., vitamin D) and minerals, and a higher intake of added salt (see graphic below). Therefore, consumers need to compensate for the nutrient deficiencies by using other food sources.
Another approach in the field is cell-based innovation, which uses mammalian cells to produce sustainable milk. However, the costs involved with this novel production method present a significant barrier to commercial success. Nevertheless, this emergent food-tech category has been gaining ground with new developments from players like TurtleTree, which cultivates naturally occurring compounds found in breast milk for applications in infant, adult, and specialized nutrition.
A more general process, precision fermentation, is described as “a process for producing alternative proteins and other ingredients without animals. Instead, it uses microbial hosts like yeast as ‘cell factories’ for producing specific functional ingredients — like proteins and fats. It’s beneficial for producing ingredients that typically require greater purity than a product’s primary ingredients.” Several startups worldwide are using this technology to produce bio-identical dairy proteins without the use of animals.
One such company is Perfect Day, which uses fungi to make whey and casein proteins identical to those produced by cows. Perfect Day’s fermentation-derived dairy proteins are a key ingredient in the animal-free ice cream by Brave Robot and Smitten, which is sold online and in shops in the US. (We found this information thanks to this great article in The Vegan Review)
All in all, the dairy industry has a lot to offer: from the highly complex nutritional value of cow’s milk to highly sustainable products of recent innovations.