A Taste For Plant-Based Cheese

Wednesday, August 31st, 2022

While much of the focus has been on meat alternatives, the plant-based cheese category is quickly catching up. There’s no questioning the big appetite for all things plant-based. Consumers remain hungry for plant-based alternatives in their quest to stay healthy and live a more sustainable lifestyle. By Jie Ying Lee, Strategic Marketing Manager, Plant-Based, Kerry Asia Pacific, Middle East & Africa


Asia Pacific is one of the fastest-growing regions for plant-based food. There is rapid experimentation and product testing among quick service restaurant (QSR) chains and casual restaurants across the region. In fact, non-dairy cheese is leading in new launches within the region’s dairy alternative category, making good on its projected 60% CAGR from 2018–2020, overtaking the global figure of 18% within the same period.


Similarly, consumer interest in plant-based cheese is also high in the wider Asia Pacific, Middle Eastern and African regions — 65% of consumers are open to trying dairy cheese alternatives, with new launches in this category pegged at 31% CAGR from 2016–2020. 


Innova reports that APAC’s non-dairy cheese market has evolved rapidly from western dishes to snacks like cheese sticks, slices and dips. Mozzarella and cheddar products dominate the segment. These two types of cheeses are widely used and hugely popular in foodservice, an area forecast to have the fastest growth rate.   


However, despite increasing appetite for non-dairy cheese, brands have struggled to recreate a plant-based cheese alternative that tastes great, melts like dairy cheese and, in the QSR environment, is available as easy-to-separate slices.


Kerry’s latest proprietary consumer research found that 78% of consumers would buy plant-based cheese if it were tasty, and with the general consensus focussed on how the flavour of non-dairy cheese pales by comparison to animal dairy cheese. Bumping up the taste quality is the biggest challenge for food manufacturers. 


Apart from taste, texture and creaminess are important considerations for 65% of consumers, while 59% would pick plant-based cheese based on the perception that it is more nutritious. Lack of availability and pricing are other barriers that would deter consumers from buying plant-based cheese.


Understanding The Gaps

Matching the taste of dairy is hugely complex. There are multiple layers and dimensions involved when attempting to replicate the taste of dairy in plant-based products. 


The core issue: Current plant-based products do not adequately mask the base notes before adding dairy flavours. The result is an overdose of dairy flavours, which can be off-putting. There is also the problem of poor smell: Non-dairy dairy flavours often give out an acidic smell when used at the levels needed to mask the natural substrate flavour.


What’s more, how dairy cheese reacts under heating and cooking, as well as how it tastes, require very specific attributes that are tough to replicate. Typically, most non-dairy cheese alternatives try to achieve both without success.


Texture is also an obstacle. Non-dairy alternatives tend to have a high starch content to facilitate slicing, grating and forming. This leads to a rubbery, bouncy texture and an overall distasteful mouthfeel when eaten cold.


The high starch content in non-dairy cheese slices also hinders a satisfying melt under regular conditions. There are also problems around handling, with current plant-based cheese offerings coming in brittle slices and grates that break very easily. 


Finally, cost and pricing can be a real barrier. Plant-based cheese alternatives demand a high degree of processing and raw materials. These add up and are ultimately transferred to the consumers. At present, animal dairy cheese is a menu standard, a privilege that plant-based cheese does not yet enjoy. This means that plant-based cheese must bring more value than dairy cheese if it were priced at a premium.


Operationally, while paying a premium to meet growing consumer demand may seem like the solution, the cost and complexity of delivering another product must be balanced in order for it to be sustainable.


According to a 2021 Research and Markets report, the global market for plant-based cheese alternatives is valued at €5.6bn. Of that, APMEA’s plant-based cheese market is targeted at 13.5% CAGR by 2028, even higher than the 12% globally. By all indications, this signals good potential for the plant-based cheese category to win over consumers in the region, in particular the next generation. 


Understanding the process and key functional requirements are therefore crucial to creating plant-based cheese. Consumers should be able to enjoy plant-based cheese for its great taste, texture, melt and overall eating experience, something that would give processed dairy cheese a run for its money.



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