Dairy alternative categories are fast expanding. Initially dominated by plant-based milk, today dairy-free yoghurt, ice cream, and cheese products are readily available to shoppers in Europe.
However this last category, cheese, has proved challenging for R&D teams to meet consumer expectations on taste, texture, functionality, and nutrition. Increasingly, companies are turning to innovative ingredients to boost protein content, flavour, or meltability, such as fermented nuts and legumes, aquafaba, or microalgae protein.
Now, a plant-based cheese start-up in Barcelona is coming to market with another ingredient: upcycled melon seed milk. The milk-like drink has ‘amazing’ nutritional values and when fermented, it generates ‘cheese-like’ aromas, Väcka co-founder and CEO Ana Luz Sanz explains.
Upcycling melon seeds into ‘milk’
Väcka was founded by Luz Sanz and Maxime Boniface in 2021. Shortly after, the start-up found its niche: plant-based cheeses. Väcka cheese alternatives are available in more than 400 points of sale, across retail and foodservice, including pizzerias.
Recently, the start-up decided to rework two of the products in its portfolio: Mözza and Chxddar. New versions of these products have replaced coconut oil with olive oil, and almond milk with fermented melon seed milk.
In the future, these ingredients will also be added to other products in its portfolio, notably its Vrie and Filä varieties.
“Melon seed milk is a beverage that is a mixture between water and ground melon seeds, that is afterwards filtered to remove residues,” Sanz told FoodNavigator. “This gives a milk-like drink with amazing nutritional values and some dairy-like notes, that we fermented to generate cheese-like aromas.”
Väcka produces the melon seed milk itself, leveraging a variety of seeds in a ‘tailored selection’ for its products. Seeds are sourced from melon varieties such as cantaloupe, galia, camouflage, and canary.
“We are now studying more precisely which variety is giving us the best nutritional results.”
Nutritional and sustainability benefits
Swapping out coconut oil and almond milk for olive oil and upcycled melon seed milk offers benefits across the board, ranging from environmental sustainability to nutrition and taste, according to the start-up. Specifically, the changes have led to a more environmentally friendly production process, reducing water consumption by 99.1% land use by 98.7%, and CO2 emissions by 91.8%.
From a nutrition standpoint, melon seeds contain linoleic acid, which has a positive impact on neuronal functioning, strengthening of the immune system, and on cholesterol reduction.
Further, subbing out coconut oil with olive oil means that Väcka’s Mözza brands contains 73.6% fewer saturated fats.
The new revamped Mözza product contains melon seed milk, starch mix, oat flour, white beans, nutritional yeast, agave syrup, salt, potato protein, lithothamnium calcareum (calcium) and ferments. The Pumpkin Chxddar product contains the same list of ingredients, as well as pumpkin.
The ‘most amazing’ ingredients used in Väcka’s cheese, however, are the microorganisms, we were told. “We are using a specially targeted blend of non-commercially available strains that are producing more flavours and texture compounds for our final products.”
Greater elasticity and versatility
The start-up claims to the be first and only plant-based food tech to be working with the combination of olive oil and melon seed milk in this category.
Väcka wanted to make ‘complete use’ of the pumpkins as the main ingredient in its Pumpkin Chxddar product. As a result, the start-up started to explore the functionality of pumpkin seeds and followed up with tests on other side stream ‘waste’ products.
“From those tests, melon seeds performed the best in terms of colour – very similar to the colour of milk – and functionality,” explained Sanz. “It is easily fermented, and other functional examples include its meltability: a cheese based on melon seed milk compared to, for example, almond milk, has a higher melting area.”
Indeed, the finished product has a 3.3. increased in the melted area, giving it greater elasticity and versatility in the preparation of dishes.
Aroma was another factor, with melon seed milk having the ‘highest resemblance to milk’.
Benefits associated with improved texture means that Väcka can now launch Mözza in a sliced and grated format, whereas previously it was sold in ‘large blocks’ only. The Pumpkin Chxddar was previously sold as a sauce or ‘dip type’ but is now also available in sliced and grated formats.
“In the laboratory, we do constant research and development work to improve both the appearance of the products and the performance of the ingredients used in their production,” explained Boniface, “and on the environmental impact of the production process.”
Väcka has filed a patent application with the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) under the heading ‘Vegan cheese analogs and method for producing the same’.
The application describes how melon seeds, a by-product upcycled through fermentation, can be used to product dairy-free cheese with improved functional and sustainable properties compared to the production process for almonds or soybeans.
“The US represents the largest plant-based cheese market, and therefore it is on interest for the business development of the company to patent there,” explained Sanz.
The start-up is also focused on the European market, however. Already on the market in Spain, Väcka will soon have the opportunity to enter the French market. Germany is also on its radar, being the largest consumer of dairy cheeses in Europe.
“The patent will be extended to Europe too, and so protecting various markets of interest,” said Sanz.