Sun, Nov 17, 2019 - Page 16 News List

Start-ups trying to make vegan cheese a reality

By Corinne Gretler  /  Bloomberg

Fridges across Europe and the US are filled with almond drinks, oat milk and plant-based meat substitutes. So where is the imitation cheese? Until it starts to taste more like the real thing, it is likely to stay out of the kitchen.

The global vegan cheese market was worth US$1.9 billion last year, according to Future Market Insights. That is just a tiny fraction of the dairy-alternatives industry and the US$121 billion in real cheese. Much of it is mozzarella or cheddar — used in cooking where the taste and feel can be disguised, rather than enjoyed on its own or accompanied by a nice chardonnay.

A new breed of entrepreneurs is trying to change that by ridding fake cheese of its rubbery reputation and getting in on the boom in plant-based burgers, milk, yogurt and ice cream.

One of them is New Roots, headquartered at the foot of the Swiss Alps — the home of fondue and raclette. Founded only four years ago, the 15-employee company supplies about 73 tonnes of imitation camembert, cream cheese and other products annually as millennial consumers embrace vegan diets.

Most faux cheesemakers just add flavors and enhancers to a milk substitute mass to mimic the taste and texture of cheese.

However, New Roots and France’s Tomm’Pousse are among the first companies pioneering a new way to make plant-based alternatives using traditional cheesemaking methods. Tomm’Pousse mixes cashews and water into a puree, while New Roots makes cashew milk. Both add probiotic cultures for fermentation and both ripen their product like real cheese.

“I wanted to keep the Swiss tradition alive and not just create an analogous product mixed together from 20 different synthetic ingredients,” New Roots founder Freddy Hunziker said in an interview at the company’s factory in Thun, where the windowsills are lined with another millennial favorite, cactuses in terracotta pots. “And it has really taken off.”

New Roots is just one of hundreds of start-ups that have popped up in Europe and North America to try to revolutionize the category.

In the US, Miyoko’s Kitchen supplies about 12,000 stores. Fatburger Corp has teamed up with Canada’s Daiya Foods Inc to offer a 100 percent plant-based cheeseburger, pairing Daiya’s cheddar slices with the Impossible Burger.

European food giants are starting to catch on. Nestle SA has developed alternatives to cheese and bacon, designed to complement its existing plant-based burger patties. French yogurt maker Danone SA said it plans to expand its vegan cheese offering after entering the category with its acquisition of soy milk producer WhiteWave.

Kraft Heinz Co, whose Singles and Velveeta brands have been struggling, this year led a US$3.5 million investment in biotech start-up New Culture, which is developing lab-grown vegan cheese by cultivating dairy proteins without the use of animals.

New Culture is taking aim at the biggest challenge for alternative cheeses: There is no plant-based substitute for the casein proteins in cow’s milk that has the same texture. Efforts to create substitutes with oils, starches and artificial flavorings have mostly fallen flat, holding back the growth of vegan diets.

“Most people are afraid to go vegan,” according to a study by researcher Future Market Insights, because “they cannot live without cheese and fast-food products such as burgers, pizzas and other foods in which cheese is an essential ingredient.”

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