Plant-based but Buonissimo : Dairy-free sensory experience concepts

Eating healthy vegan snacks, gourmet sandwiches variety. Hummus with wakame seaweed, roasted red bell pepper, beetroot on cutting board viewed from above, personal perspective, plant based food

We’re always looking forward when it comes to product inspiration concepts. This is why our Italian colleagues in Padua have been busy developing some great plant-based ice cream and cheese* analogue ideas that have potential across the EMEA region.

The continued growth in demand for vegan and vegetarian alternatives and the recent surge in plant-based options is taking the European food industry by storm. Innova Market Insights reports that Europe remains the most active region for plant-based** claims on new products, accounting for 43 percent of launches in 2019, just ahead of North America (40 percent). In fact, the market researcher notes that one in two dairy alternative launches reported globally in 2019 was tracked in Europe, with 86 percent more new launches taking place in the region in 2019 than in 2015.

Even in the highly traditional market of Italy, the rise in demand for plant-based alternatives has been profound. Research from Eurispes (2019), finds that over 7% of Italians consider themselves to be “vegetarian” or “vegan.” More significantly still, many others – the so-called flexitarians – are occasionally going for the vegan or vegetarian option. It’s part of a broader free from trend, where 19% of Italians are opting for gluten-free products and 26% are going lactose-free. Trend conscious product developers are all too happy to step in and meet their needs.

Some are saying ciao to dairy

Pernille Strand, Business Manager Sweet & Nutrition, EMEA at Brenntag Food & Nutrition notes that the trend towards dairy-free options in Europe began with milk* alternatives, such as soy drinks and rice-based drinks. Alternative yogurt and ice cream options followed, and now we are all seeing non-dairy cheese* launches come to the fore too. “This marketplace is being driven by companies making non-dairy drinks, who are now coming up with cheese* alternatives,” she explains.

Sara Miozzo, Marketing Project Manager at Brenntag Food & Nutrition in Italy believes it all means real market potential for plant-based milk*, ice cream and cheese* alternatives, in Italy and beyond. “Italians are ice cream lovers, but in the last few years we have also seen a vegan trend here, driven by new product launches from both multi-nationals and supermarket chains,” Sara Miozzo explains. “Plant-based launches are on the rise in the supermarket ice cream aisles and at an artisan level, serving both vegans and those suffering from lactose intolerance,” she adds.

While Pernille Strand stresses that the plant-based ice cream market is much more developed in the US, European NPD levels are catching up, as the big players enter the frame. “The market for vegan ice creams really originated through start-ups, but now we also see bigger brands entering this space too,” she notes. As well as the classic brown flavors for ice cream, such as vanilla, chocolate and caramel, the health connotations that accompany the vegan trend have also inspired a wave of healthy berry style launches, for example.

Matcha/Green Tea soft Ice Cream

Creating plant-based ice cream concepts

Brenntag Food & Nutrition is always ahead of the curve when it comes to creating new product inspiration concepts for customers. Our food scientists in Padua, Italy, have been testing vegan ice cream and cheese* concepts that can be used in diverse EMEA markets for more than 4 years. Since the beginning of this year, the team operates out of a newly built Food Application & Development Center (FADC). As just one of Brenntag F&N’s 13 FADCs in EMEA, it is equipped with pilot plants and modern devices to scale up industrial production processes and develop cutting-edge ingredient solutions.

The new center continues a proud tradition of inspired development at Padua, including the recent launch of an E-number free ice cream concept. Remarkably, despite being located in the most traditional ice cream country of all, Italian food scientists somehow managed to create a functional solution based on starches and vegetable proteins that is milk-free and lactose-free, but with the same taste and creaminess that traditional ice cream offers.

As Francesco Dal Col, Lab Technician for Dairy & Ice Cream at Brenntag Food & Nutrition explains, creating the E-number free ice cream concept presented a real challenge to replicate the inherent functionality that milk proteins traditionally bring to an ice cream. “Milk and whey proteins have major functionality in industrial ice cream products, accounting for a lot of the body and taste, as well as on the stabilization of the structure,” he explains. “We succeeded in creating a vegan ice cream with a stable structure and with an overrun of 80-100%, while also ensuring appreciable melting,” he adds.

These technical hurdles were overcome through the careful blending of potato protein, a small amount of rice protein, a functional native starch, and a conventional functional emulsifier system. “The potato protein used has very specific and useful properties that allow you to achieve the key properties of traditional dairy ice cream,” Francesco notes. “You can obtain a medium high overrun at the freezer, without any aftertaste,” he adds.

Mouthfeel concerns were overcome through the addition of a small amount of specific rice protein. Since a neutral base flavor was chosen that is close to vanilla, virtually any flavor can be inserted into the concept to create a great ice cream sensory experience – but without the milk! This concept line can be used in all production facilities, industrial plants or artisanal labs, and tailored towards different production or recipe needs.

“Plant-based”: The next big cheese*?

The European market for vegan cheese* is much less developed still, but is another sector that has huge growth potential, in line with the broad availability of plant-based meat substitutes. “After all, a vegan cheese*burger won’t work, if only the burger and bun are vegan,” Pernille Strand quips. This is why it’s already important to start planning dairy-free concepts with commercial potential across EMEA.

Therefore, a further development area for Padua technologists has been the creation of a complete range of texturized functional solutions to produce allergen-free vegan cheese* analogues, without impacting taste or texture. The new vegan formulations have been specifically developed to create different types of cheese* analogue textures that have potential across EMEA markets: hard, semi-hard, or soft.

breakfast - bagel and cream cheese

Simone Bavaresco, Food Application & Development Center Manager, Brenntag Food & Nutrition Italy, notes that the biggest challenge that the developers had to overcome in this case related to taste and texture. “Through the careful combinations of vegetable flours, starches, fibers, and flavors, we were able to create cheese* alternatives that deliver on taste, aroma and mouthfeel, and which are suitable for fresh usage or for use in a wide variety of dishes,” he notes.

The new formulations deliver very stable products without significant syneresis phenomena or texture changes up to end of shelf-life, and with no oiling-off or syneresis during cooking. Furthermore, they can be fortified with calcium and dietary fibers, as well as other high nutritional principles to enrich the final products.

Feta cheese on cutting board

Always in tune with today’s trends

But the team of Padua food scientists is capable of developing a much broader variety of cheeses* too. “We are very flexible, and it is easy to obtain different textures to simulate other kinds of cheese,” Simone notes. “We began our work with Italian style cheeses* and also have a prototype for blue cheese* gorgonzola*** style and other blue cheeses*, for example,” he concludes.

Further ice cream R&D activity could relate to enriching product concepts in terms of their vitamin, mineral, and protein content. For example, Sara Miozzo notes the potential for a fortified ice cream to boost the immune system, as one further avenue to explore. “I expect that in the future, the interest and consumption of food for the immune system will increase. So, a vegan ice cream that has been fortified with vitamin C for your immune system could be beneficial, if it also has an acceptably low level of sugar and fat,” she notes.

Both the plant-based ice cream and cheese* concepts are examples of how Brenntag Food & Nutrition is always attentive to new trends and consumer demands. Our experts are ready to partner on your next customized recipes and support your new product application requirements. It’s all about helping you on your journey to creating marketable products that are in line with current and future market trends.