How plant-based milk brands can address taste and texture challenges

12 Aug 2022

Today’s consumers want plant-based milk products that mimic the desirable sensorial attributes of their non-dairy alternative counterparts. In response, brands and manufacturers are focusing on taste, texture, education and sustainability.

The sensory attribute is the number one area of improvement for plant-based milk alternatives, as highlighted by over a third (34%) of European consumers in recent research, ‘Understanding the plant-based consumer’, by taste and nutrition company Kerry.

How plant-based milk brands can address taste and texture challenges
© AdobeStock/Ityuan

The study also found that 76% of consumers would like “a nice creamy mouthfeel without the dairy”, and 77% of those asked think dairy-free alternatives with “better body and texture” are appealing. “Taste is the number one reason why consumers repurchase a product and overall consumer acquisition,” says John Kelly, strategy director of beverages at Kerry Europe. “[It] is paramount to driving category growth.”

Consumers seek creamy, rich and buttery profiles that dairy delivers. While the benchmark for successful plant-based milk product launches is great taste, it is proving exceptionally challenging to deliver successful dairy taste and mouthfeel in dairy alternative beverages.

Challenges in creating tasty plant-based products

Via its consumer research, Kerry says it has identified four main challenges in achieving consumer demands for taste. Managing off-notes such as reducing bitterness, ‘cardboardness’ and ‘beaniness’ of non-dairy bases is one challenge. Another is that consumers are also looking for signature tastes in plant-based dairy products to address the specific product and local community’s needs.

Mouthfeel, which refers to how a food or beverage feels in the mouth and is a distinct attribute from taste, is also a key consideration when selecting plant-based milk. Consumers want producers to deliver a clean taste experience with less sugar but with the same sought-after sweetness and mouthfeel they would expect from a full-sugar product. Creating a creamy, fatty mouthfeel that emulates real dairy is therefore crucial.

Overcoming off-tastes

Manufacturers can overcome off-tastes by understanding the chemistry of the flavour mechanisms in their formulations. Advanced sensory testing and knowledge of how various characteristics impact plant-based milk’s overall sensory profile allow food scientists to develop solutions that decrease the disturbances to taste.

Examining and understanding the off-note mechanisms and correlating the off-notes to critical flavour compounds is also crucial to enabling brands and formulators to create flavour masking solutions.

Food industry stakeholders are conducting research studies on plant-based milk to keep ahead of dairy consumers' demand in the category and determine what attributes consumers seek when selecting dairy alternatives. Ireland-headquartered Kerry, for example, is currently undertaking a European piece of consumer research to understand consumer drivers and barriers within the plant-based milk space, which will influence future product launches.

What is more important: Product taste or consumer education?

However, it may not be centred entirely on the product’s actual taste but on the importance of education. Dairy alternatives’ taste profile is proving popular with some consumers, with over 20% of French consumers aged between 16-44 saying they prefer the taste of plant-based milk to the dairy equivalent, Mintel reported. Food and beverage brands in today’s plant-based milk space may therefore need to focus on providing education on taste and texture.

Sustainability is also a prevalent factor for consumers during the decision-making process. Brands can use their environmental credentials, namely the lower environmental footprint of their plant-based milk products as an appealing differentiator to non-vegan milk.

“The successful non-dairy manufacturer of the future will build plant-based beverages addressing the significant concerns consumers have around taste, nutrition, functionality and versatility,” says Kelly. Equally, the manufacturer needs to ensure mass appeal and ease of operation.

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