‘Billions of opportunities’: How Bel Group will leverage AI to concoct the ‘perfect formula’ for plant-based cheese
The strategic partnership, through which Bel has acquired a stake in Climax Foods, will leverage predictive analytics and AI to come up with plant-based formulations that match the texture, flavor, and nutritional density of dairy cheese. The AI-powered process would significantly reduce product development timelines, which would otherwise take ‘billions of years’, according to the two companies.
Moreover, finding the right plant combinations could produce a more nutritionally-dense product without the need for additional fortification, resulting in a cleaner label.
“In 18 months, we should be able to put on the market plant-based cheeses that look and taste like dairy cheeses and have a high level of nutrition,” Caroline Sorlin, Chief Venture Officer at Bel, told DairyReporter. “We will start with our core brands first – Mini Babybel, The Laughing Cow, Boursin, Kiri.
“It’s true that we have some plant-based versions on the market today; nevertheless, we do think we can make them even better by creating a taste that’s closer to dairy cheese and by increasing the level of nutrition.”
“So this is what we are planning to do on the existing plant-based cheeses that we offer. As for the new ones, we will create everything from scratch with Climax Foods.”
The products are expected to launch in the US and Europe during Q4 2024.
A key benefit for Bel in this partnership is that there aren’t that many AI specialists working in the food industry, so the company has access to something rather unique. Asked if she has come across similar AI-focused businesses while searching for the right partnership for Bel, Sorlin said: “I honestly hadn’t seen that many [AI foodtech firms] until quite recently. There are some companies that are trying to use artificial intelligence to produce new ingredients, while Climax Foods will help us generate plant-based formulations.
“There are approximately 300,000 species of edible plants and with their tool, we will be able to predict what kind of plants we should pick and combine in order to get a formula that’s close to the dairy formula.”
So how would this ‘plant-matching’ work? Climax Foods uses machine learning to find out at molecular level what makes cheeses special – from their texture and taste to their nutritional properties. The company then replicates the process, this time with raw plant materials, to find out which plant is associated with what benefits – be it a creamy texture, or high calcium content. With this information available across two databases, AI is then used to ‘predict’ which plant combinations would make good plant-based cheese. For example, Climax's team of food scientists have already succeeded in creating prototypes with all the characteristics of specialty cheeses, including blue, brie, feta, and goat varieties.
“The algorithm will make ‘the link’ between the two databases,” Sorlin explained. “Going forward, we’ll use the algorithm to get plenty of formulations; we will select some of these and we will prototype and see if these prototypes get close enough to what we are looking for. Then, we will move to scale-up and industrialize the formulations that have been issued by the algorithm.”
So what is it about nutrition that Bel wants to improve in its future batch of plant-based cheeses? “We want to have enough protein in our plant-based cheeses,” Sorlin explained. “Protein content is the main challenge when it comes to plant-based cheeses – it’s hard to achieve a good level of protein, because when you include high-protein ingredients such as pea or soy, you have a strong aftertaste. So it’s not easy to get taste that’s close to dairy cheese and also have a comparable level of protein at the same time. This is part of the challenge - to find the right combination of plants in order to obtain naturally-occurring proteins.”
She added: “For calcium, it’s a similar situation - there are some plants that are naturally-rich in calcium, so our objective is to minimize the level of fortification and to get the level of nutrition naturally.”
‘Our own ecosystem’
Climax Foods’ technology has the scope to significantly simplify plant-based cheese-making all while improving its functional and nutritional properties without affecting affordability or scale. Sounds fairly easy, but must be quite difficult, right? “Everything is ‘quite difficult’ when it comes to plant-based dairy,” Sorín admitted. “At Bel, we’ve been making dairy cheese for more than 150 years, but when it comes to plants, that’s something new to everyone.
“For us, we’ve been around for more than 100 years and consumers have strong expectations, which is why we are taking the time to establish formulations that can match what consumers want. That’s why we really think that AI is the solution – that way, can explore billions of opportunities in order to get the perfect formula.”
Meeting consumer expectations has led Bel to partner with other food innovators, such as precision-fermentation specialist Standing Ovation. The start-up's focus – creating animal-free casein – is a process that’s ‘completely different but quite complementary’ to Bel’s overall ambitions, according to Sorlin. “Standing Ovation are focused on ingredients, while Climax Foods are focused on formulation,” she explained. “Definitely, there will be a link between Climax and Standing Ovation because in some cases, probably Standing Ovation's ingredients would play an important part in the final formulation. So everyone is working towards a common objective, which is to bring tasty, nutritional products to our consumers. And it’s a huge opportunity for our partners as well, with Climax Foods having access to precision fermentation and vice-versa, so we are quite excited to create our own ecosystem.”
Speaking of Bel’s ambition to offer a more balanced product portfolio by 2030 – with an aim for 50% plant-based and fruit products and 50% dairy – Sorlin said getting plant-based cheese right would be crucial to meeting this strategic objective. “Today, the ratio is 80% dairy and 20% non-dairy,” she said. “The plant-based segment is definitely really small because we only started on this journey three years ago and we are at the beginning of it. So we rely a lot on this partnership [with Climax Foods].
“The reason why plant-based cheese is still small on a global scale is because nobody’s managed to get the same level of taste, nutrition and texture as dairy cheese. If we manage to do that, I am super confident about achieving that 50-50% balance in our portfolio.”