Animal-Free Dairy: The Next New Thing
Animal-free foods are gaining in popularity thanks to growing concerns over the ethics, health, and environmental effects of conventional animal agriculture. These products are increasingly comparable to their animal-sourced counterparts, but consumers still have not adopted them on a wide scale — they continue to consume meat and dairy because of the price, taste, and convenience. This study examined people’s willingness to try and buy cheese made through the process of precision fermentation. Formo (previously LegenDairy Foods) produces cheese through this new process and funded and co-authored this study.
Researchers surveyed 5,054 individuals from five countries in November and December 2020 to gauge consumer acceptance of dairy products derived through precision fermentation. They administered the survey to residents of Brazil (1,020), Germany (1,051), India (825), the U.K. (1,249), and the U.S. (1,009). A document provided at the start of the survey defined “precision fermentation” and follow-up questions were checked for understanding. Product questions used a theoretical cheese product called mozzarella in the four western countries and paneer in India.
Precision fermentation itself is not a new concept. It is used to make insulin along with rennet, which used to be derived from calf stomachs. Formo, along with other companies, is using the process to make dairy proteins, the building blocks of various food items. These foods are identical to conventional dairy in form, content, nutrition, and taste. Survey materials described the process as akin to that for beer or soy sauce where microorganisms are engineered to produce a product (in this case, dairy proteins).
Results showed substantial acceptance of animal-free cheese. Overall, 78.8% of respondents said they would probably or definitely try dairy-free cheese, and 70.5% indicated they would probably or definitely buy the product. About half (49.8%) indicated they would buy dairy-free cheese regularly. Enthusiasm was most pronounced in Brazil and India, but strong majorities in Germany, the U.K., and the U.S. claimed they were likely to try dairy-free cheese.
The key to purchase intent was taste perception, and the current level of cheese consumption was the strongest predictor of a respondent’s willingness to buy dairy-free cheese. Perhaps surprisingly, being flexitarian was a stronger predictor than being veg*n for willingness to buy this new product. Indeed, in prior research, consumers noted that dairy was the hardest animal food to give up. Across countries, purchase intent was highest in Brazil and India, but still significant in Germany, the U.K., and the U.S.
Respondents thought the dairy-free cheese would taste significantly better than current vegan cheese offerings. It would taste as good and be just as safe as basic cheese from animal milk and be more ethical and environmentally friendly. However, except for Brazil, participants rated animal-free cheese the least natural of the options presented. As far as safety, both Brazil and India rated animal-free cheese relatively highly. In Germany, the U.K., and the U.S., it was considered slightly less safe than basic milk-based or vegan products. Healthfulness and nutrition were viewed similarly across countries.
While the results of this study are encouraging, advocates must be cautious in their use. Funding for the research came from a company that stands to benefit directly from the success of dairy-free cheese. Therefore, they are motivated to frame the outcomes in the most positive light possible. We can hope that consumers send dairy-free cheese flying off the store shelves, but we must be realistic. The animal agriculture industry will fight this new threat with their deep pockets, and the public can be squeamish about new foods that seem too artificial. Once these products are a reality, advocates can better assess how to promote them. For the welfare of the 250 million dairy cows around the world, dairy-free cheese holds huge promise.