A quick glance around any major retailer would reveal plant-based brands positioned as alternatives across all major dairy categories. What used to be seen by many as a fad has clearly gained some legs.

“It’s becoming a megatrend. Not a fad,” notes Richard Graeter, president and CEO of Cincinnati-based Graeter’s Ice Cream Co. He says that while he’s witnessed fads come and go within his ice cream category, dairy alternatives seem here to stay.

According to Melissa Abbott, vice president, Hartman retainer services for the Hartman Group, Bellevue, Wash., the category is exploding, and it’s not just vegans who are consuming dairy alternatives anymore.

“Dairy consumers and nondairy consumers are often one and the same,” she elaborates.

John Starkey, president of plant-based food and beverages for Broomfield, Colo.- and White Plains, N.Y.-based Danone North America, agrees, noting that the flexitarian lifestyle is gaining traction.

“In fact, 86% of consumers who use plant-based products do not consider themselves as strictly vegans or vegetarians,” he notes.

With that in mind, Starkey says Danone North America prides itself on offering nondairy brands such as Silk and So Delicious Dairy Free along with its dairy ones to meet flexitarian diet needs.

“Danone North America has global expertise in both plant-based and dairy products, allowing us to deliver a broad portfolio of options so consumers can make their own informed decisions about what they purchase, whether they be dairy or plant-based,” he adds. “In many cases, consumers have both in their fridge.”

Consumers are choosing dairy alternatives for many reasons, including sustainability, dietary restrictions and nutritional concerns. And some dairy companies are considering or have already debuted products that meet these needs. For example, Bel Brands USA, Chicago, recently unveiled an entirely plant-based brand — Nurishh.

“Our long-term success is based on the way we simultaneously focus on consumers and bring relevant innovation into the marketplace across the globe. By diversifying through plant-based products, we are furthering our mission to become a major player in the healthy snack market,” says Florian Decaux, plant-based acceleration director for Bel Brands USA. “Our development in plant-based foods is not a trend we are following. It’s a choice in line with our company strategy and the business model we are seeking to create.”

Milk alternatives modernize

The milk alternative category has seen an explosion in new products in recent years, and Abbott notes that this has created a “paradox of choice.” Consumers are willing to try new products instead of sticking with a tried-and-true favorite.

For example, while “almondmilk” was recently the alternative du jour, “’oatmilk’ is the new darling of the moment,” she points out. Recent product launches support this claim.

“In just two years, ‘oatmilk’ has risen from newcomer in the plant-based space to one of the most frequently purchased plant-based beverages — seeing triple-digit growth in 2020,” Starkey remarks. “Strong category growth like this proves oat is a favorite in plant-based offerings and will continue to be for some time.”

Silk released a “refreshed formula” of its “oatmilk,” Starkey notes. It won a national taste test for the best-tasting original “oatmilk” in 2021.  

And Chobani — which added oat-based beverages to its portfolio in 2019 — created a direct-to-consumer platform for its popular Chobani Oat Barista Edition this year. Consumers may now order six 32-ounce containers of the beverage for $29.50. The company says it is versatile, fantastic for froths and foams, and a great nondairy swap for cappuccinos, lattes, teas and more.

Consumers will choose different milk alternatives based on whether they are more concerned with sustainability or with nutrition, Abbott explains. For example, some might avoid almond “milk” due to the amount of water needed to produce it, or stay away from soy “milk” because it is seen as being over-industrialized. Other recent trends include adding in functional ingredients such as adaptogens to offer additional health benefits, Abbott notes.

For example, Vancouver, Canada-based Blume says it recently debuted an adaptogenic nut “milk” blend that is infused with Ayurvedic adaptogens for a creamy, barista-worthy “milk.” The offering comes as a concentrate that is meant to be mixed with water; it contains over 10,000 milligrams of a proprietary mushroom blend (consisting of Reishi, Cordyceps, Chaga and Lionsmane), which is said to be hormone balancing and great for stress, focus and overall wellbeing.  

Starkey agrees that some consumers are looking for functional beverages “that can deliver key plant-based nutrition.” And protein content remains another area of interest. 

For its part, Danone North America unveiled Silk Ultra, a complete plant-based protein beverage “that supports muscle maintenance and repair,” Starkey notes. It contains 20 grams of protein per serving. 

In the near-term future, Abbott predicts that upcycled ingredients such as barley will become more common in the category. And hemp — which offers health and sustainability claims — is likely to become more prominent.

The new Greek

Alternatives to cultured dairy products also are increasing in popularity. And Danone North America recently introduced a new offering to contribute to the category: Silk Greek-style yogurt alternatives.

“Greek offerings dominate the yogurt category, encompassing nearly half (44%) of yogurt sales,” explains Starkey. “However, with roots in traditional dairy, Greek plant-based yogurt-alternatives offerings have historically struggled to deliver on Greek’s signature thick texture.”

The offering is made with a coconut base and contains 10 grams of plant-based protein while maintaining Greek yogurt’s signature thickness, Starkey points out. It debuted in August in four flavors — Vanilla, Strawberry, Lemon and Blueberry.  

“This is the product of a multi-year herculean effort to deliver the signature traits of Greek without the dairy, resulting in a breakthrough combination of thick texture and a good source of plant-based protein,” he says. 

Frozen desserts fill out

According to Abbott, consumers care less about the nutritional differences between dairy and nondairy options within the frozen dessert space. They are likely choosing a product for its taste.

With this factor in mind, Graeter’s recently launched a non-animal-based “dairy” product — Graeter’s Perfect Indulgence frozen dessert. It delivers the “indulgence” of a dairy product, as it is made with Perfect Dairy’s lab-created “dairy” proteins.

Graeter’s wasn’t actively pursuing creating an animal-free “dairy” product. Sometimes it would experiment with creating nondairy offerings, but the flavor was always off. But after working with Perfect Day’s proteins, Graeter says he finally tasted a product on which he’d be willing to put the Graeter’s name.

The line comes in seven flavors that are also offered in conventional Graeter’s ice cream: Black Cherry Chocolate Chip, Black Raspberry Chocolate Chip, Madagascar Vanilla Bean, Chocolate Chip, Cookies & Cream, Chocolate and Oregon Strawberry. Graeter’s didn’t want to offer a new flavor experience — simply one that met certain consumers’ desires for humanely produced, sustainable products, says Graeter.

“Younger consumers are choosing … non-animal-based ‘dairy,’ and they’re choosing it for ethical reasons,” he adds. “They’re looking to be able to make an impact on their world through their consumer choices.”

According to Graeter, entering this space was about looking at what dairy might be in the future.

“We’ve been around for 150 years, and I think if we want to be around for the next 150 years, we need to be exploring the future of dairy,” he emphasizes. “And I will say it’s the future of dairy. It’s not a dairy alternative, it’s a dairy product. The ‘dairy’ proteins are molecularly indistinguishable from the dairy proteins that come out of a cow.”

Other dairy processors also have entered into the nondairy frozen dessert space. My/Mochi Ice Cream, Los Angeles, has offered dairy alternatives since 2017, and recently debuted an oat “milk”-based mochi offering.

“This year, we continued to revolutionize the snacking world as the first mochi brand to move to oat ‘milk’ when we announced the launch of My/Mochi oat ‘milk’ frozen dessert, which offers the same creamy, dreamy deliciousness of My/Mochi to snack lovers,” says Russell Barnett, managing director and chief marketing officer, My/Mochi Ice Cream.

He adds that My/Mochi wanted any nondairy frozen desserts it launched to still deliver on the taste and textural experience, and oat “milk” fits the bill.

“My/Mochi oat ‘milk’ frozen dessert is available in our Chocolate, Strawberry, Neapolitan and Salted Caramel core flavors, which we’ve found to be fan favorites — whether dairy or nondairy,” Barnett notes.

And Eugene Ore.-based Oregon Ice Cream Co. launched dairy alternatives in both its Alden’s Organic brand and its foodservice brand Cascade Glacier. This year, it unveiled Cascade Glacier dairy-free “ice cream” in Vanilla and Chocolate flavors.

“Consumers expect their favorite scoop shops and restaurants to offer options that fit their dietary restrictions or food allergy sensitivities,” says Joelle Simmons, senior vice president of sales and marketing. “We believe retailers who can deliver delicious dairy-free, plant-based versions of customers’ favorite ice cream treats will not only expand their audience, but will increase customer loyalty.”

Oregon Ice Cream Co. also recently added Horchata and Strawberry Lemonade dairy-free frozen novelties to its Alden’s Organic Summer Bar line (in addition to a dairy-based Root Beer flavor). The company already offered other nondairy options in its portfolio.

Craft enters cheese alternatives

Many flexitarians who consume both dairy and nondairy products in other categories still are sticking to the real thing when it comes to cheese, says Abbott.

“Milk alternatives are the first entry point for consumers. Then it’s the nondairy ‘ice cream,’” she explains. “Cheese, however, continues to experience an uphill battle in terms of the way it’s literally impossible to be able to create a [nondairy] version that is like cheese.”

To that end, many cheese-alternative consumers are either vegans or individuals with extreme lactose intolerance, explains Abbott. Nondairy “cheese” sees a bit more success when it is added as an ingredient as in dishes such as quesadillas. But for consumers who want to eat cheese on its own as a snack, most would opt for the real thing as opposed to an alternative.

“The plant-based category overall is growing rapidly, but many dairy-free ‘cheeses’ fall short on texture and taste,” says Keith Schuman, business unit lead for Vevan Foods, a division of Schuman Cheese, Fairfield N.J. “We recognized that there was a white space for plant-based eaters looking to have the same experience dairy cheese provides.”

Decaux agrees. 

“There’s tremendous opportunity to continue to develop new plant-based ‘cheese’ products that deliver on the taste and texture of dairy-based cheese,” he emphasizes.

Some dairy companies are starting to release nondairy versions of their cheeses, or even launch plant-based brands. According to Decaux, Bel Brands doesn’t see its dairy-alternative Nurishh line or the nondairy additions to its Boursin brand being in opposition to its dairy offerings. 

“The expansion of our product lines means it allows even more consumers to enjoy the distinct taste and texture of our products while meeting flexitarian food trends and evolving consumer demands,” he points out. “Each of our brands appeals to a different type of consumer and attracts a unique, loyal fan base — and we know that some consumers may not be able to, or choose not to, enjoy dairy versions of our products.”

Bel Brands launched its Nurishh brand in the spring in six varieties: Nurishh cheddar style slices, Nurishh mozzarella style slices, Nurishh provolone style slices, Nurishh cheddar style shreds, Nurishh mozzarella style shreds and Nurishh cheddar & mozzarella style blend. 

“Creating a tasty plant-based ‘cheese’ that has the correct mouthfeel and meltability is difficult, but at Bel we have a strong cheese heritage — with over 150 years of experience [that] we’ve leveraged to solve this challenge,” says Decaux. “Guided by Bel’s French cheese-making expertise, Nurishh strikes the balance of genuine cheesy taste, meltability and comfort with plant-based goodness.”

According to Decaux, Nurishh also meets consumer clean-label demands. Its “cheeses” contain 10 ingredients on average, and the main one is coconut oil.

Abbott says she is starting to see high-end artisanal nondairy “cheese” brands use cultures on nuts and seeds in a manner similar to cheesemaking. She thinks these could be game-changers in the future.   

Schuman Cheese’s new Vevan Foods brand has an artisanal spin. It launched last fall in Ched, Mozza and P’Jack varieties. The brand recently added Marinated Mozza-Bites, which the company says take the artisan plant-based “cheese” experience to a new level — with bite-size cubes of creamy, dairy-free Mozza marinated in an aromatic blend of herbed oil and spices.

“The traditional alternatives for flavors like cheddar and mozzarella will always be welcomed, as they are versatile staples within the average consumer’s diet,” Schuman notes. “However, we are seeing a trend toward flavors that excite beyond those classic go-to’s. Products like our shredded P’Jack and new Marinated Mozza-Bites were crafted in the pursuit of giving our customers more options.”

Beat them, or join them?

According to Abbott, most consumers choose dairy alternatives because of their perceived health benefits. With many consumers complaining about digestive issues, she doesn’t think dairy processors can compete in terms of health and nutrition. But she believes some dairy companies have a winning story to tell in terms of sustainability, heritage and humanely produced products that would resonate with consumers.

If a dairy processor is curious about entering the dairy-alternative space or looking to create a product with non-animal-based “dairy” proteins, Graeter recommends proceeding with caution. He notes that consumers ultimately want products that taste good.

“I worry … other products in this animal-free and/or dairy-free space … won’t deliver on the promise of indulgent dessert, and people will try them, and they will quickly tire of them,” he says.

Schuman agrees that dairy processors should keep the eating experience in mind if they are interested in launching a plant-based alternative.

“The key to producing any quality product is to lead with consumer experience in mind, and plant-based offerings are no different,” he says.

Decaux predicts that dairy alternatives will only gain momentum from here, and dairy companies should “remain authentic and leverage expertise” when looking at this emerging space.

“The key to achieving long-term success is to continue innovating. For the dairy industry, that includes dairy alternatives,” he says. “We’re proud of our latest innovations because they withhold and maintain the traditional values and expectations Bel Brands USA is known for.”  

And Graeter notes that while he’s a “dairy guy” and a carnivore, he can foresee a future where non-animal-based “dairy” is the only one for Graeter’s.

“Whether that’s five, 10, 50 or 100 years [from now], I don’t know. But I want … the next generation of the Graeter’s family to still be around creating an incredibly indulgent product in the very unique way we make it,” he notes. “Who knows what the future of farm-based agriculture is going to be for dairy, for meat, for any of it. It’s changing, and we have our eyes on the long-term horizon.”