Kimberlee Burrington
Kimberlee (K.J.) Burrington is director of training, education, and technical development for the American Dairy Products Institute.

The retail dairy case has changed dramatically in recent years and the cultured dairy products category is no exception. According to Innova Market Insights, “In the last two years (Q4 2020- Q3 2022), almost three in four yogurt launches in the United States were Spoonable Dairy Yogurt, accounting for only a 24% market penetration for Spoonable Non-Dairy Yogurt. Both markets have a declining growth rate, -25% for dairy yogurt and -7% for non-dairy yogurt (compound annual growth rate, Q4 2017- Q3 2022).” 

This downward trend can be linked to rising flexitarianism (consumption of animal products in moderation) among consumers, adds Innova. “This also led to the diversification of innovation in a new “hybrid” category, with plant and dairy combinations. Dairy hybrids have been the talk of the town in recent times, with increased interest from producers; however, at the moment we see very few options on the shelves.”

Hybrid hurdles

There are likely consumers that would purchase a hybrid product in hopes of getting the nutritional benefits (real or perceived) of dairy and plants. The performance attributes of dairy and plant proteins are very different. Yogurt is a casein gel with whey proteins dispersed throughout the gel. The gel formation happens during the fermentation process as the yogurt cultures produce lactic acid. 

Whey proteins do not form a gel through acidification, so if dairy manufacturers made a yogurt with predominantly whey protein, formulators would have to add other ingredients to create the gel texture. Like whey proteins, plant-based proteins do not have the ability to gel during the fermentation process, so the addition of starches and/or hydrocolloids would be necessary to create a yogurt-like texture. Other performance issues with plant proteins are related to flavor. 

Traditional yogurt has a mild dairy flavor with acidity and usually acetaldehyde notes, created by the yogurt cultures. Plant proteins have their own characteristic flavors associated with their plant source, but they can also have bitter, astringent and other flavor offnotes, all of which are not desired in yogurt. Combining the flavor and performance of milk proteins with plant proteins in a yogurt-type product will be more acceptable from a flavor and texture standpoint than a purely plant-based product. Just to make things easier from a product development standpoint, starting with milk and adding some plant proteins would be the best approach, while keeping the percentage of dairy proteins higher than plant proteins. 

Naming rights

As a reminder, the term “yogurt” can only be used on product labels that meet the standard of identity for yogurt. While this has been a long-debated discussion in the “milk” category, the same rings true in the yogurt category. Any product that does not meet the standard listed in 21 CFR 131.200 needs to be called a cultured product or something other than yogurt. 

Keeping these recommendations in mind should help you create a new cultured product in that hybrid space with the best chance for consumer acceptance. Let’s see how the new introductions coming in 2023 measure up!