Upfield prepares for dairy parity with plant-based butter, cream and cheese: ‘Only technology will close the gap in taste and texture’

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Upfield plans to ‘close the gap’ between conventional and plant-based cream and cheese. GettyImages/t_kimura
Upfield plans to ‘close the gap’ between conventional and plant-based cream and cheese. GettyImages/t_kimura

Related tags Upfield Violife Dairy alternatives plant-based

The company says its plant-based butter is already as good as its conventional counterpart, and plans to close any taste and texture gaps in dairy-free creams and cheeses within the next three years.

Upfield is considered the largest plant-based consumer packaged goods company in the world. The company’s portfolio is made up of more than 100 brands, including Flora, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter, Rama, Emlea, and Violife.

With a global presence – Upfield operates in more than 95 countries – the company wants to encourage a shift towards greater plant-based uptake.

By 2030, the Upfield wants its offerings to reach one billion consumers (it is currently selling to 305m), to eliminate dairy ingredients from its entire portfolio (99% of its portfolio is dairy-free), and move towards 100% ‘natural ingredients (currently at 97% ‘natural’). Eliminating plastic from its packaging is another ambition.

“To make consumers switch and do the right thing – to be healthier and better for the planet – taste is crucial,” ​according to John Verbakel, chief research & development officer at Upfield. “We need products to taste and perform,” ​he told delegates at F&A Next, an event hosted by Rabobank, Wageningen University & Research, Anterra Capital and StartLife last week in the Netherlands.

“Our plant-based products need to be the same in taste and performance as their dairy [counterparts]…Once you have that – a great product that is healthier, more sustainable, and a little bit cheaper, then the consumer will no doubt switch.”

At that point Upfield expects its consumer base to grow too, moving the company closer to its goal of reaching one billion consumers worldwide. “Then you can switch the big part of the consumer base, and not only the vegans,” ​he told delegates. “We need to…go after the mass consumer. That’s what we want to achieve.”

Challenges remain in plant-based cheese

Having started life as Unilever’s Baking, Cooking and Spreads (BCS) – before being sold to private equity firm KKR and taking on the name Upfield – the company has a long history in plant-based butter alternatives.

In this category, Upfield is confident it has achieved taste and texture parity with its conventional counterpart. In Flora Plant, which Verbakel previously told FoodNavigator​ presents the ‘same great taste and functionality’ as dairy butter, ingredients include vegetable fats and oils (from palm, sunflowers, and rapeseeds), emulsifier (lecithins), and broad bean protein.

“In plant butter, we are as good as cow butter,” ​said Verbakel. “So the consumer can easily switch, and you see that already happening.”

But other dairy alternatives present more of a challenge. In cheese, for example, a larger gap exists between dairy and dairy-free products, we were told.

Upfield’s best known cheese alternatives are sold under Violife, a brand of vegan cheese predominantly based on coconut oil and starch it acquired in 2020.

“Milk proteins in cheese are pretty remarkable and they have a unique functionality. If you replace them with the current available plant proteins, it does not deliver the same functionality.”

Common issues in swapping out dairy proteins for plant-based alternatives include off-notes, colour issues, and a lack of meltability.

The R&D chief suggested these problems would remain so long as the knowledge-gap persists between plant-based proteins and more conventional ingredients. “We know everything about casein and whey proteins, we know everything about fats and oils.

“So the new area we are investing a lot in is plant proteins, and every progression in plant protein will bring us one step closer [to achieving taste and texture parity].”

Backing technology to unlock plant-based innovation

Upfield is convinced plugging this knowledge gap will help the company two-fold: by helping to achieve taste and texture parity in its plant-based creams and cheese alternatives, and in meeting its ambition for 100% plant-based and ‘natural’ ingredients across its product portfolio.

“The big challenge is that in some of our products there is very little protein, but [that protein] is milk protein – for flavour,” ​explained Verbakel. “So we need to replace that.”

The R&D lead is backing plant proteins, combined with the right technology, to provide a solution. “It’s a great time to be in R&D,” ​he revealed, “because I believe only technology will close the gap to achieve parity in taste and texture”.

Upfield is looking internally (within its R&D team) and externally for innovation unlocks. Having established ‘lots’ of partnerships with start-ups, the company wants to create win-win situations and ‘good business’ for both parties. Upfield has also set up an innovation centre in Wageningen, the Netherlands, to be part of the open innovation ecosystem.

In pulling these levels, Upfield plans to ‘close the gap’ in plant-based cream and cheese, suggested Verbakel. “In creams we’ll take one year, and cheese two to three years, and then we’re done.”

Keen to learn more about innovations in alternative meat and dairy? Tune in to our free-to-attend broadcast event Protein Vision​, which will stream across four sessions on 21-22 June 2023.

Streaming across four sessions​ on 21-22 June 2023, Protein Vision will profile the technology, ingredients and culinary science powering the next generation of meat- and dairy-free innovation. We’ll be asking how the sector can rebuild momentum and truly take a bit out of conventional meat and dairy sales.


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