It’s all in the milk? Not any more.

Oats, almonds, rice, soy or coconut: More and more people are choosing to incorporate alternative milk products in their diets. Application technologists and flavorists at Symrise are ensuring that these plant-based products also have a great taste.

German television commercial from the 1980s: A young woman is glowing at a photo shoot, she’s playing tennis and volleyball very well, then celebrating an exam she has passed. In between, the commercial cuts to images of a glass of milk, with a catchy advertising jingle playing in the background. The refrain on repeat: “It’s all in the milk.” For adults, milk was long regarded as something to wake you up, as a quick source of energy; children were taught they could only grow big and strong by drinking plenty of milk. Hardly anyone doubted these claims. Today, more and more people are avoiding milk – for a number of reasons. “For about ten years now, awareness of healthy eating has been growing in Western countries,” explains Renaud Allaire, the Global Account Director at Symrise responsible for the customer Danone. At the same time, awareness for animal welfare has also increased. “And as a third point, concern has been growing for several years about the impact of livestock farming on global warming,” says Renaud. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, industrial mass livestock farming accounts for around 15 percent of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Cows also need a lot of water. According to a study carried out by the Technical University of Berlin, at least 100 liters of water are required to produce one liter of milk.

Only about 5 percent of people are lactose intolerant, but 25 percent of consumers are looking for lactose-free products.

Renaud Allaire, Global Account Director

For these reasons, more and more consumers are turning to plant-based alternatives when they’re in the supermarket. For a few years now, the share of these products has been steadily rising – a trend that is easy to see at the food manufacturer Danone. Six to eight percent of the portfolio is now of non-animal origin. Danone expects that by 2025 up to 25 percent of its products will be produced from plant-based proteins.

A recent Symrise study in Germany, France, Spain and the UK has shown that about half of consumers are already choosing plant-based alternatives for dairy products, at least occasionally. The online survey of 1,800 consumers revealed that taste and price are the decisive factors for switching to plant-based alternatives from classic dairy products.

But not all consumers are the same. Vegans simply want to do without animal products and they will accept a different taste. Other consumers are not averse to plant-based alternatives, but they absolutely don’t want to give up the taste they are familiar with. This group of “flexitarians” is getting larger and larger. And of course, like the strict vegans on the one side, there are consumers on the other side who would never give up milk.

“That’s why Danone doesn’t believe that dairy products will ever be completely replaced by plant-based alternatives,” says Renaud. Currently, the assumption at Danone is that it might be a maximum of 50 percent. The market is huge. Danone’s EDP division (Essential Dairy & Plant-Based Products) sells € 13.2 billion of products per year. Giving up lactose has become a trend. “Only about 5 percent of people are lactose intolerant, but 25 percent of consumers are looking for lactose-free products,” says Renaud. About ten years ago, Symrise entered the niche market of plant-based proteins. The rise to the mainstream began almost five years ago. “Symrise has developed diversified application expertise so it can offer the right flavor tonality for various product solutions,” says Frank Eberspaecher, VP Business Unit Sweet.

Application technologist Mathilde Gageat tests solutions for masking a taste.

Test object on fermented soya basis.

Consistency is as important as taste. Finally, the alternative dairy products are also used for decoration.

Application technologists Damien Ramel (left) and Matthieu Bazy test high-temperature stability of drink flavours in testing facility.

IT’S THE TASTE THAT COUNTS A higher acceptance of plant-based milk alternatives in the broader population is only possible if the taste is right. The Symrise study mentioned above showed that unpleasant taste is the main reason for respondents to move away from alternative products. But what is “good” or “bad” taste? Here, Renaud Allaire wants to clear up a misunderstanding. “I often hear the prejudice that plant-based milk alternatives don’t taste good. That is completely incorrect. Many people in Europe and the USA like almond milk, as well as drinks made from nuts or cereals,” he says. In the APAC region, rice drinks are very popular.

When it comes to creating taste and to how it is perceived, two professions are particularly important: flavorists and application technologists. They work together closely – flavorists look for the right flavor tonality, and application technologists work on the overall performance of the end product.

“The leading flavors in milk alternatives are brown flavors like coffee, chocolate or nut flavors. Exotic fruits like mango are also popular,” explains Senior Flavorist Claire Mora. She says that vanilla is the most difficult to work with. “At the same time, how­ever, this is an important tonality for Symrise, which is why we are working on it very intensively.” Once the flavor is found, the main work for the application technologists begins. “A flavor has very different characteristics depending on the base material, process and pH value. That’s why I have to test the flavors in the base material in order to verify the properties,” said application technologist Mathilde Gageat, explaining her work.

Getting the right interplay of flavor and base material is challenging enough. But things get really complex once it comes to its effect in your mouth, because Symrise can influence not only the product itself, but also how it is perceived by the mouth. We can illustrate how this works with an anecdote: About 20 years ago, pharmaceutical companies wanted to give rather unpalatable medicines a better flavor, so they turned to Symrise. In their attempts to give the medicines a bearable taste, the experts discovered a bitter blocker in the oral cavity. This molecule occupies receptors that would normally register a bitter taste. These blockers make it so that you can no longer taste the bitterness of certain raw materials – even though they are still there. The blocking of receptors has been extended bit by bit to other unwanted taste tones; the term for this is “masking.” Symrise has also succeeded in applying this process to neuroreceptors in the brain that influence the intensity of taste experiences. “This is, so to speak, the magic of our industry,” says Renaud.

Only animal milk may be called milk

With the introduction of vegan dairy products such as “tofu butter” or “oat milk,” a dispute arose regarding what can actually be called “milk.” Following a legal complaint against the Wiesbaden-based company Tofutown, the European Court of Justice ruled in 2017 that the designation “milk” is reserved exclusively for products obtained from the “normal mammary secretion” of animals. The same applies to processed products such as “cream,” “chantilly,” “butter,” “cheese” or “yogurt.” However, there are exceptions to the rule – for example “coconut milk.”

A FOCUS ON FLEXITARIANS This “masking” of plant-based milk alternatives is currently the biggest challenge. The goal is it to impress not only vegans but flexitarians when it comes to plant-based alternatives. The perfect flavor alone is not enough – what counts is the overall experience of a food. Moreover, the price must be reasonable and the supply chain sustainable.

Take coconut, for example. Even if coconut milk is suitable as a substitute for whole milk in ice cream, the raw material is not available in unlimited quantities or under fair cultivation conditions. Usually, coconuts come from poorer countries where neither environmental protection nor human or animal rights are given the same importance as here. Renaud Allaire is nevertheless certain that the future belongs to plant-based milk alternatives. His goal is to work with Danone to offer specific plant-based dairy products for each subconsumer group – from small children to senior citizens. “We use our knowledge in close collaboration with our customers, which will guarantee us future growth in this category,” says Frank. “The trend will rebalance our diet in the future. Flexitarianism is the new world.”

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