Editor’s note: Sorosh Tavakoli is founder and CEO of Swedish plant-based cheese startup Stockeld Dreamery.
The views expressed in this guest article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of AFN.
It would have been the perfect plot by the dairy industry, to launch hundreds of terrible vegan cheese products, promising deliciousness, meltability, creaminess and selling it at a premium to consumers. It’s not, and yet this is where we are today.
As consumers’ plant fatigue is pushing them away from sustainable foods, food manufacturers, retailers and restaurants all have to step up the game to deliver on consumer expectations.
The rise of plant-based alternatives to animal-sourced foods has been widely touted as a solution to the problems of animal welfare, environmental sustainability, and public health. We all know the talking points. Billions of animals suffering unnecessarily every year. Livestock causing 14% of greenhouse gas emissions. People getting sick from overconsumption of animal-sourced foods, while under consuming protective foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and omega-3s.
Enter alternative proteins. Entrepreneurs from all parts of the world and different backgrounds jumped in to be part of the solution, myself included.
Venture capital showed up to fund our initiatives while corporates started internal innovation projects. Retailers set up ambitious projects to nudge consumers towards plant-based. A record $3.1bn was invested in the space in 2020. Oatly IPO’ed at a $10bn valuation. There were countless launches of new plant-based foods, from meat and milk to egg, fish, and cheese. There was no end to the hype.
And yet, one small detail was forgotten: These products largely failed to win over consumers on a large scale due to consistent over-promising and under-delivering.
Most products don’t taste good enough: ‘At least I’m not spitting out your cheese…’
Firstly, most products don’t taste good enough, at least in the plant-based cheese category. They don’t taste exactly the same as animal-sourced foods and yes, you will tell the difference. One of the worst parts of my job is to taste competitor products in the vegan cheese category. Meeting the head chef at a big restaurant chain the other week, he said, “At least I’m not spitting out your cheese,” and this was meant as a compliment. I don’t need to say more.
Second, plant-based products don’t behave like their animal-based counterparts when using them in cooking and baking, making life difficult for consumers and chefs. And here too marketing teams have been way too generous claiming “I melt” when vegan cheese seldom does.
Thirdly, many alternative protein products are terrible from a nutritional point of view, especially in the cheese category.
And finally, these products are being sold at a +50% price premium. Of course consumers are disappointed! Vegan cheese sales are subsequently contracting.
Brutal vetting process
To cut ourselves some slack, let’s just be frank and say that making food products using plants that taste and act in a similar way to animal-based products has been way harder than any of us thought. As an example, no-one has still cracked making a good melting cheese despite multiple ambitious attempts.
We’ve been going at it for four years and during this period we’ve only launched two products. One of them, our Feta, wasn’t good enough (and impossible to scale) and we pulled it from the market. Our cream cheese we’ve seen can over deliver on consumer expectations, making people cry and swear, so we are putting our money behind it.
Other products in our pipeline continue to go through the same brutal vetting process, which is exactly that, brutal. We have more than 10 people working day and night and the outcome continues to be uncertain. We recently de-scoped our biggest product investment to date.
But just because it’s hard it doesn’t give us (nor our industry peers) the right to launch any inferior product with overly generous marketing claims and sell it at a premium. This behavior is making it difficult for all of us to achieve the change we are striving for.
The food system is still causing 25% of greenhouse gas emissions, using 70% of all freshwater, and half of all habitable land in the world. And animal farming is to blame for most of this impact.
Fewer and better products
For food manufacturers, it’s time to step up, or this category risks dying off. We need to raise the bar, launching fewer and better products. We need to invest more in R&D and focus on consumers to truly push our products to taste better, have better functionality and over time, we will get to lower our prices as we optimize and achieve scale. We need to stop over promising.
For chefs and restaurants, you are actually pretty good at making food delicious, so your challenge is to incorporate more plant-based products, trying harder to change common perceptions and make plant-based dishes easier to order. Stop naming dishes ‘vegan’ and placing them at the bottom of your menus. Explore more, experiment more and dare to push boundaries.
For retailers, your strategic initiatives to push plant-based foods have had the right intentions, but the approach is not working. You need to have a much more selective strategy, curating and elevating the best products sold in your stores. And you need to manage the increasing plant fatigue with your customers so that they once again get excited about the category.
It’s time to get real, tell it like it is and take action.