Plant-based milk is now fully mainstream: In 2020, sales of the category grew twice as fast as cow’s milk in the U.S. Oat milk sales more than tripled, to $274 million, and almond milk topped $1.6 billion. Still, many consumers still haven’t made the switch from traditional milk. Danone, one of the world’s largest dairy brands, wants to convince the holdouts to give plant-based alternatives a try, and has spent more than a year developing new plant-based milk designed to be as indistinguishable as possible from the real thing.
“There’s been a group of consumers who remain skeptical about plant-based offerings, largely because of their taste and texture,” says John Starkey, president of plant-based food and beverages for Danone North America. “From our research, we saw that there were about 53% of people who say that wouldn’t purchase plant-based beverages because of their taste.”
In early 2022, the company plans to launch Silk nextmilk, with similar nutrients and taste as standard dairy, and So Delicious Wondermilk, which was designed both for drinking and to work well in cooking food like macaroni and cheese. The Wondermilk line will also include pints of ice cream-like desserts. Both are made from a mixture of oat, soy, and coconut milk.
The company, which has owned the Silk soy milk brand since 2016, when it acquired White Wave Foods, used its experience with both dairy and plant-based dairy to refine the new products. “The first step was to learn about and deconstruct the classic dairy drinking experience, particularly the key nutritional factors of dairy, the molecular composition of dairy, but also the very iconic sensory elements,” says Takoua Debeche, chief research and innovation officer at Danone North America.
The team tasted and rejected hundreds of plant-based ingredients. A neuroscientist on staff who studies the emotional connection to food gave input on what consumers would want from the product. “We really had to get rid of all the plant-like notes so people could fully access the memory of milk,” Debeche says. The flavor was challenging to replicate—Debeche explains that it’s a complex mix of sweetness, creaminess, and less appealing attributes like sourness, bitterness, and a hint of sulfur. Like other foods, milk has a “flavor curve” that develops over time in the mouth, and the team also had to try to replicate how the flavor changes over seconds.
It was also important to get the texture right. “The texture and the mouthfeel is actually driven by the milkfat particle size,” Debeche says. “Dairy milk has a very specific fat melting curve, and that fat melting curve is a result of the unique saturated fats found in dairy milk.” In the new products, she says, the team found a combination of fats, including coconut, that “closely mirrors the melting profile of dairy fat so it coats your mouth in a similar way.”
Some startups, like Perfect Day, are using precision fermentation to recreate components of dairy—that is, using microbes that are genetically programmed to produce whey and casein, key dairy proteins. Because the proteins are identical to what’s found in cow’s milk, the resulting products also taste astonishingly similar to traditional dairy. Danone says, though, that the technology isn’t ready for it to use at the large scale it requires, either in terms of the ingredients available or the cost; the company also plans to study the environmental impact of using that technology versus purely plant-based ingredients.
When I tried a sample of Danone’s new products, I thought the flavor was slightly different than regular dairy. But the creaminess and mouthfeel were right. It’s the closest plant-based imitation I’ve tasted so far. And the company is betting that it will convert more consumers. “This is a huge opportunity to close that gap between traditional dairy and plant-based beverage household penetration,” says Starkey.