Thursday, December 16, 2021

Getting Gutsy in 2022


Sitting in the dentist chair this week for my regular cleaning, the hygienist started lecturing me on gut health instead of telling me how to floss. Imagine how thrilled I was when she explained how the probiotics in yogurt decrease the pH in the mouth and this helps prevent bacteria from forming plaque. (I believe more research is required in this area, but it was refreshing to know it is part of the dental office conversation.) She even went on to discuss the role of good bacteria and gut health and the overall impact on immunity. At this point I think she could have said I needed a root canal and I still would have been as excited as a kiddo on Christmas morning. 

Research shows consumers understand the benefits of probiotics. The pandemic fueled their interest in immunity and gut health. When a dental hygienist chooses to discuss probiotics versus flossing, I think it is safe to say that the time is right to make foods for gut health a priority.

A few weeks ago, The Hatchery held its Annual Fundraiser and Dream Commercial Pitch Competition. The virtual event featured Dr. Erika Ebbel Angle, CEO and cofounder of Ixcela, a health and wellness company that helps individuals improve their internal health. She explained how a properly balanced gut microbiome improves energy levels and mood, supports the immune system, and even helps to protect us from other health issues. 

This 11-minute TED Talks is similar to the discussion that took place at The Hatchery event. I highly encourage watching it. Link HERE.

I believe gut health will be the leading mega trend of product innovation this coming year. It includes positive nutrition and may complement other mega trends, such as global inspiration, convenience and better-for-you indulgence. (Lifeway’s new Chocolate Truffle Kefir covers a few of these trends.)

“66% of global consumers say they have become more conscious of their overall health as a result of COVID-19,” according to FMCG Gurus. 

Positive nutrition is all about maximizing intake of healthful foods. Consumers want products that deliver on multiple wellness benefits, including gut health, energy, healthy aging and mental health, a.k.a., positive mood. 

Julie Smolyansky, president and CEO of Lifeway Foods, followed Dr. Ebbel Angle. She explained how “kefir” comes from the Turkish word “keif,” which means feel good.  

“People simply feel good after drinking kefir,” she said. “The connection between the gut and the brain is incredibly strong.

“Staying relevant is the #1 thing for legacy brands like us,” said Smolyansky. “Innovating constantly is very important for us. Innovation is also communicating with communities.

“Staying ahead of trends is important,” she said. “You have to consistently get the word out about science. Bringing wellness to people through food is so important.” 

Happy Gut = Happy Mood. Please commit to marketing gut health in 2022. It might be gutsy for a traditional dairy, but I can promise you that the plant-based and animal-free fermented products will be active in this space.  

And, in case you missed this on the plant-based category, here’s a statement from the National Milk Producers Federation that was issued on Dec. 6, 2021.

Dairy Defined: Tough Times Arrive in Fake-Food Land

The hype couldn’t last forever.

No matter how many celebrity funders are brought on board or “next best thing” pitches are made to launch a product, eventually, over-the-top marketing comes back to bite, and that’s what’s been happening in the world of fake food. Here are a couple recent examples.

Oatly, the darling of the plant-based beverage set, lost one-fifth of its trading value in one day last month after warning it wouldn’t meet revenue expectations. As is the fashion of the day, Oatly blamed the pandemic and supply chains, but the simple truth is, consumer demand isn’t what it was earlier hyped up to be. Third-quarter sales in the Americas, expected at 40 million liters a month, fell short by 3 million.

The company is facing quality control issues as well, with a recall in its native Sweden for potential loose metal in its products. Of all the ingredients seen in plant-based beverages, “loose metal” would be among the least desired, and that’s saying a lot. Oatly’s trajectory toward making oats and chemicals America’s drink of choice is falling like a lead balloon – evidence of that via a battered share price, which has kept falling since the bad news was revealed, is a welcome sign of marketplace sanity.

Beyond Meat is another case study in facts can complicate an all-too-perfect narrative. Last month the company had to dramatically lower its expectations for revenue growth, using the pandemic as a cover for a consumer market that’s fizzled much faster than anticipated. Share prices fell accordingly, and like Oatly’s, they keep heading down. Beyond Meat isn’t in the fake dairy business (though it’s made rumbles), but it’s all the same story in animal agriculture, with so-called “innovators” making a short-term splash, then fading with their ad campaigns.

None of this, to be sure, means these companies are going to disappear. Overpriced, flavored plant water has been around for four decades, and while we still wonder why anyone thought they could improve upon the venerable Boca Burger, Beyond Meat has carved its niche. Consumers want variety, and consumer attraction to alternative products is something P.T. Barnum would have found completely understandable generations ago. Though we regret their effects on public health and the environment, fake foods are likely to proliferate even further, as test tubes and fermentation labs bring new imitators that will employ the same sales tricks as their plant-based predecessors. The imposters, it’s safe to say, are here to stay.

What doesn’t need to stay are lax labeling standards and consumer misinformation. A market functions better when it’s transparent. That’s true at a local supermarket as much as it is on Wall Street. This principle is becoming even more important in dairy as where-your-food-comes-from questions become even more crucial to consumer trust and honest marketing.

Over time, promotional flim-flam gets found out, and investors and the public learn that The Next Big Thing isn’t what it was cracked up to be. But the process would move more quickly--and less painfully--if consumers held a clearer understanding of true food “innovation” and better tools for identifying what a food is and what it isn’t. The sooner the puff-up-and-bust cycle is recognized, the more consumer dollars will be better directed toward more nourishing products, the ones that will survive the ups-and-downs of food fads and cash grabs.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Plant Based World Expo 2021: 10 Take Aways


New York City’s Javits Center welcomed the Plant Based World Expo yesterday (Dec. 9), and continues until the end of today. This is only the second installment of this trade fair in North America, with the first one having taken place in June 2019. Proof of vaccination and masks required at all times, unless tasting a sample, the expo was packed. Innovations from brands were plentiful and a number of suppliers also exhibited in efforts to assist entrepreneurs with getting their concept to market. This included today’s blog sponsor, Lycored, which offers a number of plant-based coloring solutions that have application in dairy and meat alternatives, as well as other plant-based products, including condiments and desserts. Thank you Lycored. Visit them at booth #553.

Like with many expos, I sampled, selectively, and focused on the plant-based products intended to replace dairy products such as butter, cheese, ice cream, milk and yogurt. I also found the Opening Keynote session--Growth of the Plant-Based Industry—extremely informative, as it shared perspectives from retail and foodservice. Here are 10 Take Aways.

1. Some of the products are really good, and some are really not very good. I was pleasantly surprised how well a vegan cream cheese tasted in a New York-style cheesecake. There was also a milk alternative that tasted delicious.

2. During the keynote, Rachel Dreskin, CEO of the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) said that plant-based milk currently has 16% share of the milk space at traditional retail and 50% in the natural foods segment. Improved product quality is driving growth. Consumers, especially young consumers, like plant-based milks (with oat the leader) for what they are, not necessarily as an alternative to milk. It’s an evolution in mindset with Gen Z. Whereas Millennials and older consumers see plant-based milk as an alternative, younger consumers just see it as another option. This will only become stronger with sensory and nutrition improvements. 

3. And those improvements are happening as innovators think out of the box. Who says mozzarella—dairy or plant based—should be shredded on top of pizza? Miyoko’s Creamery, a leader in the plant-based alternative category, threw away the rule book to craft the finest vegan pizza mozzarella by focusing on the desired end result: delicious meltiness. Rather than creating a solid block of vegan cheese and shred it, Miyoko stripped out the solids and ingredients that hinder meltability, such as anti-caking agents used to prevent clumping, and focused on the melt with this first-of-its-kind, revolutionary liquid cheese. The clean-label perishable product features organic cashews and organic sunflower oil as the top-two ingredients. The formulation includes a touch of mushroom extract for umami and vegan cultures for mozzarella flavor development. When used according to instruction on pizza, you would never know it was plant based. Congrats to Miyoko. 

4. But, then there’s the nutrition component that needs to be addressed. This product is not necessarily more healthful for “you” than the low-moisture, part-skim mozzarella traditionally used on pizza. It’s higher in sodium (791mg vs. 682mg per 100g) and almost void of protein (3g vs. 24g per 100g). Both contain 20g of fat per 100g; however, the plant-based has a notable reduction in saturated fat (2.9g vs. 11g per 100g). It also is a bit lower in calories (250 vs. 300 per 100g). The health of the planet is a big message for many plant-based dairy marketers. So, I guess if sodium and protein are not a concern, and saturated fat and the planet are, this product is a winner. 

5. Then there’s the plant-based bacon strips I tasted. I will start by saying they were all delicious. However, coconut oil melded with smoky flavor and lots of salt is likely going to be yummy in whatever shape it comes in. Enough said. If a vegan or vegetarian wants bacon, there are plenty of options. Flexitarians will often say it is bacon that keeps them from going vegetarian. That no longer needs to be the case. Vegetarians say it’s the cheese that keeps them from going vegan. That may be slowly changing with commodity cheeses, but as of now, nothing beats true blue, brie and aged cheddar.

6. Retailers are looking for plant-based products to fill gaps in their stores, according to keynote speaker Marcellus Harris, assistant commodity manager for poultry at Kroger. The retail giant is committed to the plant-based movement and currently has more than 100 plant-based items in its private-label Simple Truth brand, 30 of which were added this past year. “Plant-based focus extends across all our customers,” he said. It’s driven by flexitarian families, with improved health a priority. “But, the consumer is flipping the package over.” 

7. That back side needs to be clean, simple and not suggest being overly processed. “You have to make plant-based the easy choice,” said Susie Weintraub, CEO of Envision Group/Compass Group, the largest global on-site foodservice company. “It has to taste great and be affordable.”

8. Weintraub shared a very interesting perspective on the role of plant-based in foodservice. She explained that Compass serves about one million meals a day and the company “has the ability to influence, promote, educate and inform.” But this can only happen with partnerships with brands. Compass employs more than 7,000 chefs and the company spends a lot of time training and educating them to help them create plant-based recipes. But they can only do so much. I repeat what she said, “You have to make plant-based the easy choice.” This means taste is paramount and price is a huge factor. Sampling helps.

9. Benjamin Davis, vice president of content, Plant Based World Conference & Expo kicked off the keynote by stating that when the first expo took place in 2019, people were just starting to understand plant based and the pandemic provided time for a global adoption of the trend. “We live in unprecedented time where there’s undeniable social responsibility combined with a massive financial opportunity,” he said. 

10. He also said, “Plant-forward is used to describe cuisine that focuses more on plant-based ingredients than animal-based ones. It’s a great step-in-the-right-direction for both health and sustainability and caters well to a flexitarian audience.” 

Real dairy--delicious and nutritious--can be part of a plant-forward diet. 

Hope this gives you something to ponder for your innovation plans for 2022!

Friday, December 3, 2021

Dairy Foods Flavor Trends 2022: Make it an elevated experience

Photo source: Balchem

It’s that time of year when food and beverage authorities make their predictions for what will be trending the upcoming year. No surprise, plant-based, keto and immunity are the consensus. 

Flavor forecasts are typically not category specific, so I like to review them and make them relevant to dairy. That’s the topic for today. 

But first, on a lighter note (because the emergence of the omicron variant and Thanksgiving COVID cases has many of us very stressed out)…

Yesterday--as was February 12th of this year--was 12022021. It’s a very rare date, and lucky us got to experience it twice this year! It is both a palindrome (reads the same backward as forward) and an ambigram, which is this case, it reads the same right side up and upside down (when viewed in digital typeface). 

If you use a zero with the month, February 2nd of last year provided the same phenomenon: 02022020. It was actually a “universal palindrome” because it reads the same whether written as month/day/year or day/month/year. The last universal palindrome occurred on 11/11/1111. The next one won’t come until 12/12/2121. (I hope the future is warned what comes next.)

Feb. 2, 2020, was a Sunday, in fact, it was Super Bowl Sunday. The Kansas City Chiefs had their first victory in 50 years. It was also the second day of official pandemic reporting, with a total of 11 confirmed cases in the U.S. That seems like a lifetime ago. 

And while it was “the end of the world as we know it” (love that REM song), if you add the numbers together (0+2+0+2+2+0+2+0 = 8), you get the number 8, which in numerology indicates assertion, determination and responsibility. Turn 8 on its side and it becomes the infinity symbol. In astrology, the number 8 often refers to Saturn, the planet of karma, practicality and resilience. In hindsight (2020), that date told us a lot about where we are today. We’ve pivoted, adapted (or still trying to) and recognized that we have to take responsibility for our health and the planet’s health. 

So what does all that have to do with dairy flavor trends? Well, consumers have a new-found appreciation for almost everything, from celebrating holidays in person with friends and family outside their bubble to traveling to in-person tradeshows. They are craving elevated experiences. That’s the flavor connection.  

Flavor development, have it be in milk, yogurt, ice cream or any other dairy product, needs to consider experience. This is delivered through taste, texture, appearance and yes, marketing. The world does not need another vanilla or chocolate ice cream brand, regardless of its nutritional composition or the addition of functional ingredients. 

Photo: Tahini swirled yogurt with cardamom blood orange from

With that said, there are three key flavor trends to consider going forward. All can be part of limited-time and seasonal flavor programs. Aldi’s holiday ice cream flight was one of the most innovative ice cream concepts this year and I hope there are more like it by the private-label retailer and others. 

The three key flavor trends are:

1. Immunity-boosting fruits, namely oranges, specifically blood oranges, are high in vitamin C and have a strong association with immunity. Elderberries, which are high in antioxidants, have become recognized as a superfruit during the pandemic. Using these fruits—alone or in combination with other flavorful ingredients—adds a healthful halo to dairy products.  

2. Mood enhancers, including botanicals and florals associated with states of being, such as relaxation, energy and sleep, readily combine with traditional flavors. Think lavender vanilla. Honey falls into this space, too, as it is a soothing flavor. It also includes indulgent flavors, which are simply meant to be enjoyed.   

Photo: Blood orange ice cream with ginger and dark chocolate chips from

3. Destination flavors, think of everything from cotton candy fairgrounds to a honey tahini Mediterranean cruise to apple picking. Marketing is very important in this concept, with seasonal availability creating an urgency to purchase. And, when there’s a story to tell that brings the flavor back to its origins, everything from the region from where it is sourced and the people who produce it, to how it’s grown and its impact on earth, tell it.