Proprietary consumer research from Cargill presented during SupplySide West 2022 suggests that flexitarian consumers are playing a larger role in the plant-based dairy marketplace, compared to the previous year. According to Cargill’s research, 9% of consumers reported being vegan or vegetarian, compared to 14% in 2021. Additionally, 29% of consumer reported making efforts to avoid animal-based dairy in 2022, compared to 42% in 2021. Moreover, 45 % of consumers stated they were more likely to seek out plant-based claims, while only 12% stated they were more likely to seek vegan/vegetarian claims.
“It’s a significant drop, which tells us that the people that are buying plant-based dairy now are those that are open to flexing. So, they don’t think of it as having to steer clear of dairy, but just that they are going to have both in their household,” said Mark Fahlin, marketing and business development for Cargill to Nutritional Outlook.
The plant-based dairy category, particularly with regard to liquid dairy, has evolved to the point where consumer palates have adapted to the flavor of plant-based dairy. Each type of plant-based dairy brings its own attributes to the table, along with animal-based dairy, and has its place in consumers’ daily lives. And while plant-based milk is very high quality now, offering great flavor as well as messaging that includes ethical treatment of animals, sustainability, and clean label (as well as lactose and allergen-free), milk still has the upper hand in terms of nutrition, protein specifically, says Fahlin.
“Plant-based dairy has come a long way in terms of nutrition and fortification, but even plant-based dairy purchasers will tell you that there are certain things still lacking where animal-based dairy has the advantage,” Fahlin explained. “Protein is the biggest hallmark of what I call Generation Four of plant-based milk that needs improving. If you look at the typical plant-based milk, it might be an almond milk, coconut milk, or an oat milk, the protein is maybe one gram per serving, and that does not stack up very well against conventional milk, which is 8 grams per serving, or more designer milks entering the market now, which are ultrafiltered milks at 13 grams or 14 grams, so there’s a race going on for protein right now and plant-based is lagging behind.”
There is a need for better plant protein solutions, and for Cargill, pea protein is a go-to. Cargill has a joint venture with Puris (Minneapolis, MN), which recently released its Puris Pea Protein 2.0, designed for ready-to-drink beverages touting high solubility, smooth and creamy mouthfeel, and a flavor free profile from “beany, grassy, earthy, or bitter” notes. According to Fahlin, this pea protein solution should be able to help plant-based dairy alternatives reach 15 or even 20 grams per serving if so desired.
Although plant-based milk has a high level of penetration, other dairy alternatives like plant-based yogurts or cheeses have significantly less penetration. The technology is just not quite there yet to deliver the level of quality most consumers expect. Though to Fahlin’s surprise, what consumers buy and what consumers want from plant-based dairy does not necessarily line up. “I would have thought that the incidence of trying and consuming would have been: 1) plant-based milk, 2) coffee creamers, 3) yogurt, 4) ice cream, and 5) cheese, because that what we see from the sales results standpoint,” he explained. “But what consumers are telling us is that the second likelihood of purchasing another dairy [alternative] product is actually [plant-based] ice cream So that tells me that there is a bit of a gap in the marketplace on what consumers are wanting to try and what they’re repeating on in the marketplace.”
According to the research, 8 in 10 consumers state they are most likely to purchase plant-based milk in the future, and 5 in 10 state that ice-cream is the next dairy they are most likely to purchase. So, consumers are likely to buy plant-based ice-cream, but they’re not necessarily repeat purchasing, meaning that certain expectations were not met. The plant-based ice-cream with the right taste and texture will be a huge seller.
Plant-based cheese, on the other hand, is the category of consumers who are least likely to buy, with 1 in 3 consumers stating they are likely to buy plant-based cheese, compared to 1 in 4 in 2021. There is still a long way to go with plant-based cheese to get to the level of plant-base milks.
With both dairy and dairy alternatives in the fridges of so many households, it’s clear that the plant-based dairy is attractive to a wide range of consumers. According to Cargill, 34% of households with children under the age of 18 are likely to buy dairy alternatives, with women (55%) and millennials (38%) being the largest plant-based dairy consumers. Though Gen X and baby boomers are not too far behind with 25% and 23% these respective generations buying dairy alternatives. What was previously an alternative for people suffering from allergens and sensitivities, or those who have decided a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle has simply become another option for the consumer average.