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Trending Now: Say 'Cheese' to Plant-Based Dairy

By Beth Bell

What's behind the rise of plant- based dairy? And why is it a positive choice for personal health and the environment?

Since I started writing for Triple Pundit this past year, like any guest blogger, I seek to find a subject matter of interest to readers but, firstly, myself.

One subject came to me last year after attending Natural Products Expo West in March, and Expo East in September: the significant growth of dairy alternative products.

Dairy alternative milks, creams, yogurts, and nut- and soy-based cheeses are a seriously growing industry. My business partner and I noticed this year after year at the Expos, and you can certainly see it in the supermarkets -- even 'conventional' ones.

With the New Year comes a new incentive for many of us to eat more healthfully, so with that let's explore what’s behind this growth -- and why switching even some of your intake to plant-based dairy alternatives is a good thing.

Our company has already worked with a few brands in that space: Califia Farms, which makes almond milk products and juices, and Melt Organic Spread -- an all-natural, plant-based butter alternative. It was our client at Melt who introduced us to the newly formed and growing Plant Based Foods Association. The organization seeks to help further growth in all areas of plant-based food production, sales, availability and marketing (not just dairy alternatives but also meat alternatives).

As milk and butter alternatives have been around for a while, I wanted to learn more about the growth in plant-based cheeses. To do this, I spoke with Matthew Sade, the CEO of Kite Hill. Kite Hill is one of those plant-based, non-dairy cheese companies you'll notice in both organic and conventional supermarkets. Matthew explained that with the founding of the company, his team sought to make non-dairy, plant-based yogurt and cheese products that would appeal to all palates, even those are reluctant to consume mass-produced, plant-based cheese because they felt the texture was not as pleasing as traditional cheese.

He explained that previously many plant-based dairy alternative cheese products were made with oils and starch, processed with heat, to approximate a cheese-like texture. What Kite Hill does is use a proprietary process to culture the nut based milk, which is a process more like the way traditional cheeses are made.

Vegan chefs have been successfully experimenting with this type of nut cheese production, but it is only recently that these types of cheeses appeared on the scene for retail purchase. As someone personally who, as I’ve aged, has trouble digesting more than a small amount of dairy, I’ve been trying out a number of these types of products myself, and it’s a welcome surprise to find such a variety of tasty products out there.

So, who is buying this product? "Yes, it is vegans (a growing sector who eat an entirely plant-based diet), but also people looking to avoid high-fat diary for health reasons," Matthew said. "This growth is indeed a 'macro trend'."

Founded by three people, Kite Hill now employs more than 100 and has a research and development team working to create additional products in this realm.

Next, I spoke with Dina Cheney, author of several cookbooks and creator of the website and resource The New Milks.

She said the drivers for growth in this sector are: alternative dairy is innately more sustainable; the growth in veganism and paleo diets; alternative milk products are kosher; and consumers run no risk of being exposed to the hormones that can be found in some traditional dairy products. Lastly, some consumers have dairy intolerance, like I’ve begun experiencing.

According to the National Institutes of Health, from Dina’s website, “Approximately 65 percent of the human population has a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy."

Lactose intolerance is more common in East Asians firstly, and then people of African American, Native American, Arab, Jewish, Hispanic, Italian or Greek ancestry.

The health benefits to alternative milk products are that they contain less sugar, less calories and no cholesterol. And, yes, even the nuts, including almonds, grown for nut milk products use less natural resources than what is needed for commercial dairy farming.

We discussed some of the new trends, which include pea- and legume-based milks, hemp milk, macadamia milk, and cashew milk along with the more established almond, coconut, rice and soy milks. More of these alternative milks are being experimented with to make yogurt and cheese alternatives, as well.

To get the perspective of a chef who works with alternative dairy, I turned to Doron Petersan of the well-known D.C. vegan bakery Sticky Fingers. She’s also a cookbook author, two- time "Cupcake Wars" winner and last year opened a vegan concept diner, Fare Well.

Long a fan of her incomparably delicious cookie, the Cowvin cookie, I was looking forward to chatting with her, as she’s been a vegan baking and cooking alchemist for over 17 years. At her bakery and now her diner, she serves not only sweet dairy alternatives but also savory ones. She mentioned that her delicious baked goods were the gateway product that got plenty of omnivores to try her other vegan foods.

Doron makes nut-, coconut- and soy-based flavored spreads, ice cream, mozzarella and cream cheeses for a number of years. She sees the growth in this sector not only from the growth in veganism, but also in omnivores looking to diversify their diets, as well as the number of people with food allergies and sensitivities.

Initially, soy was the main ingredient in these products, but in recent years she’s incorporated cashews -- with a high fat content and a natural sweetness -- along with coconut and even pea protein.

The awareness of the benefits of a plant-based, or even more diverse diet, which includes plant-based dairy alternatives, is becoming more widely known. The exciting thing is the growth and increased availability of delicious, sustainable, lovingly crafted foods in this sector that speaks to the overall growth in the sustainable food business in general.

To get back on track with a more healthy regime -- for you and the planet -- for the new year, why not include some plant-based alternative dairy in your shopping cart, refrigerator and diet? You’ll join a growing number of consumers who are making positive changes to do just that.

Image credits: 1) Courtesy Doron Petersan & Fare Well; 2) Courtesy kitehill.com; 3) Courtesy Doron Petersan & Fare Well 

Beth Bell is the founder and president of Green Product Placement, the first Entertainment Resources Media Association product placement agency that specializes in placing and promoting green, sustainable, socially enterprising and entrepreneurial brands in mainstream entertainment media. Since their launch in early 2012, they have placed over 80 good brands in over 225 productions in the US, Canada and the UK. Ms. Bell has a degree from University of North Carolina School of the Arts, and has worked professionally in television and film production since the late 80’s, and has worked and consulted in entertainment, media and event management and marketing for over 15 years. She has spoken internationally on the subjects of: product placement, green marketing and entrepreneurship.

Read more stories by Beth Bell