Bel Group—the multinational firm behind cheese brands Babybel, The Laughing Cow, and Boursin—has teamed up with AI-powered startup Climax Foods to develop plant-based versions of its iconic brands for launch in Europe and the US by the end of 2024, starting with Mini Babybel.
Bel, which has also acquired an equity stake in California-based Climax Foods, aims to co-create plant-based cheeses “indistinguishable from their dairy counterparts” that will be manufactured in Bel factories around the world, chief venture officer Caroline Sorlin told AFN.
The aim is to generate half of Bel’s revenues from plant-based, fruit-based, or animal-free products by 2030, she said. “As a dairy company, we’re making our best efforts to reduce our carbon footprint through regenerative agriculture and other initiatives, but it’s not enough; we need to find other solutions. Right now, as we’ve acquired [fruit puree brand] GoGo squeeZ, we’re at about 80:20 [dairy to non-dairy], but most of that is from fruit, not plant-based cheese.
“The problem is that no one has been able to solve the challenge of taste, nutrition, texture and affordability for plant-based cheese, so we’ve spent a lot of time looking at the foodtech ecosystem to find pioneers that can help us.
“By combining Climax Foods’ expertise and our branding, our facilities, our go to market, we can change the way we do plant-based. We took an equity stake because we are super convinced by the company. We are a minority shareholder, but a strategic one.”
Climax Foods founder and CEO Dr. Oliver Zahn added: “Until recently, we were just a bunch of scientists… so for us, being able to leverage this vast experience [from Bel Group] of scaling production of products in dozens of factories across the globe is very exciting. We will learn a lot from that, but it also means we don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to distribution, because Bel already has that.”
Plant-based cheeses ‘indistinguishable from their dairy counterparts’
Bel Group—which launched a dedicated plant-based cheese brand called Nurishh in spring 2021 and a plant-based version of Babybel in early 2022—has collaborated with several high-profile startups over the past couple of years to create products with a lower carbon footprint.
Most recently, it teamed up with precision fermentation startups Standing Ovation and Perfect Day to develop cheeses incorporating dairy proteins made via microbial fermentation. It is also working with Superbrewed Food to develop cheeses containing a postbiotic cultured protein made via biomass fermentation.
Nutritious, affordable, cheese with a lower carbon footprint
The partnership with Climax Foods will create a new generation of plant-based cheese that is “nutritious, affordable, low carbon footprint and indistinguishable” from dairy cheese, Zahn told AFN.
“It’s a research and development collaboration where we will find optimal [animal-free] formulations of Bel’s core branded cheeses together and then also work on the Nurishh brand together, and then we will commercialize them together and co-brand them together.”
Zero compromise plant-based dairy?
The ingredients lists of Climax Foods’ first wave of products—set to launch later this month—will be revealed shortly he added: “But it’s not so much about finding some exotic plant that only grows in the Amazon.
“It’s often about using what’s right in front of us more optimally, so using a seed storage protein, let’s say, that’s very abundant, that can be tweaked so you can change the configurations of the protein or you can add a chemical group in a food safe, scalable manner and turn it into functionality that is indistinguishable from the dairy target. There’s also no flavor additives, no gums, and no color agents.”
He added: “Once you have true zero compromise plant-based cheese products, you don’t even have to talk about sustainability or health if the product tastes the same as dairy cheese, and people see there’s no cholesterol, that the fat profile is better, the micronutrients are there, the protein content is the same, and the price is the same or lower.”
Cheese…. without cows
While the dairy-free cheese market is growing globally, with retail sales up 22% to $869 million with volumes up 11% in 2022 according to Euromonitor data shared by the GFI this week, it is still a tiny part of the overall cheese category.
Right now, plant-based cheeses can be broadly divided into three groups: oil and starch-based products such as Daiya, Violife, and Follow Your Heart; cultured nut products such as Miyoko’s and Kite Hill; and seed-based products such as Spero and Grounded Foods.
A fourth class of cheeses featuring whey proteins made in fermentation tanks is in test mode—with Bel’s new ‘animal-free’ Nurishh cream cheese featuring Perfect Day’s whey protein from fermentation performing extremely well in Kroger, according to Sorlin. “It’s early days but velocities seem to be crazy. We’ve had good feedback from consumers with results at parity with the reference product, which is Philadelphia cream cheese.”
Products featuring casein proteins made via fermentation are also in the works.