July, 2022

Insight: cheese alternatives

According to a consumer analysis drawn up by Mintel, in Europe in 2022 most people will be consuming cheese at least 2-3 times a week, with the exception of some countries, such as France, where 33% of respondents say they eat it once or more times a day. Cheese, in fact, is one of the most common and popular foods in different Western cuisines as it is related to several concepts, such as quality, high protein content, nutritional benefits and taste, which according to consumer analysis is a boost for the mood.

But what is the environmental impact of cheese production?

While cheese processing and transportation have a minor impact on emissions, breeding animals for cheese production represents a significant footprint on the environment. This is mainly due to the methane that farm animals for meat and dairy production release during digestion, as well as the reduced carbon dioxide uptake associated with the large areas of land required for grazing or growing feed, sometimes replacing ecosystems that are more effective at absorbing CO2, such as forests. According to the study “Carbon footprint of meat, egg, cheese and plant-based protein sources” carried out by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, the carbon footprint of cheese comes mainly from the impact of the milk used to produce it (about 71-98 % of the emissions come from milk production), while emissions from other ingredients, from processing to other post-farming activities have a small impact.

However, not all types of cheese affect the environment in the same way. For example, soft cheeses generally have a smaller carbon footprint than hard chees which requires more milk in production. In addition, the energy used for aging implies that the environmental impact given by processing hard chees is generally greater than soft cheeses.

Cheese alternatives: the emerging trend

From the Mintel report “Ready meals can prove plant-based cheeses’ credentials” in the United States, about 57% of flexitarians regularly consume dairy alternative products. 39% among omnivores and 29% among carnivores also use dairy alternative products. The main reasons for consumers to try dairy alternative products are always related to health, environmental and animal protection reasons. This is supported by data showing that in the United States, 43 percent of Generation Z cheese consumers agree that the environmental impact of dairy production has led them to cut back on cheese consumption. Moving to Europe, on the other hand, 37 % of German consumers and 44% of British consumers between 16 and 24 years say that environmental concerns have led them to limit and/or reduce the amount of cheese consumed.

Types and flavours of vegan, vegetarian and plant-based cheese launched from 2020-2022

Through the Mintel GNPD tool, we were able to review the launches of cheese with vegan, vegetarian and plant-based claim over the past three years globally. The category with the highest launch was hard cheese (47.1%), followed by processed cheese (32.8%), soft cheese (18.6%) and spreadable cheese (1.9%). 76.3% of these products were flavorless, while 3.3% featured herb and spice flavoring, and to a lesser extent garlic, smoked and chive flavoring.

The leading country for these launches was the Netherlands with 28.5 % of total launches from 2020 to 2022, followed by the United States (12.4 %), Canada (8.7 %), Australia (7.5 %) and the United Kingdom (5.3 %).

Consumer barriers lead to producers ‘opportunities

Innovations in vegan cheese can offer solutions that meet consumers’ health and ethical goals without drastically impacting their eating habits. Manufacturers of cheese alternatives therefore have a chance to improve and renew their products, providing a healthy and tasty alternative that helps consumers to reduce their consumption of dairy products, aiming not only to have a lower environmental impact than traditional cheeses, but to have the lowest possible environmental impact.