Natural Foods Merchandiser

Don't be sheepish about alternative dairy

When it comes to cheese and dairy, cow's milk and soy products dominate the categories. But if you and your customers have long been loyal to these traditional choices, the following facts might have you lowing for something new.

  • An estimated 30 million to 50 million Americans (about 25 percent of the population) are affected by lactose intolerance, according to the National Women's Health Information Center.
  • Cow's milk allergies can affect 5 percent to 15 percent of infants, according to the International Association of Infant Food Manufacturers.
  • In a January study published by The American Heart Association in its journal Circulation, a committee found that soy isoflavones had no clinically significant impact on cholesterol.

Not that cow's milk and soy products should be shunned—they have served dairy lovers well for decades. But sales figures for these items indicate it might be time to spice up the category. According to SPINS, a San Francisco-based natural market research firm, refrigerated soymilk sales increased by only 4 percent in 2005. Cow's milk consumption declined 14 percent from 1990 to 2003, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service. On the other hand, manufacturers report that sales of alternative dairy products are moo-ving fast.

Goat's milk products
"Goat's milk has a loyal consumer base, and it is definitely a 'destination shop' product," says Shana Adams, director of marketing for Turlock, Calif.-based Meyenberg Goat Milk. "There are really two kinds of goat-milk-product consumers—those who need to consume goat's milk products due to sensitivity to cow's milk, and those who choose to use goat's milk products because of their nutritional benefits and taste, [like] gourmet food enthusiasts." The latter category includes fans of goat cheese, which is considered a specialty or artisan product and is often used as a tangy accent in gourmet dishes.

According to Adams, Meyenberg's whole-milk category grew by 42.5 percent in 2005, while its low-fat goat's milk grew 51.7 percent that same year.

Besides goat's milk and cheeses, Meyenberg produces a European-style goat milk butter, which has a lower melting point than cow milk butter and a wide range of applications, including use in sauces, baking and saut?ing. Goat milk butter, which was introduced in September 2004, had a sales increase of 167 percent in 2005, according to Adams.

Other manufacturers also report increased sales in goat's milk products, mainly from consumers who have trouble digesting traditional dairy products.

"The main difference between goat's milk and cow's milk is that goat milk is made up of smaller-chain fatty acids and is more easily digestible than the large-chain fatty acids of cow's milk. Also, because the fatty acids are smaller, they don't adhere to arteries and cause blockages like larger ones do," says Amy Wend, owner of Napa, Calif.-based Sky Hill Farms, producer of goat yogurts and cheeses. Furthermore, Wend says, goat's milk contains lactic acid, a converted form of lactose, making it more easily accepted by lactose-intolerant people. "Goats convert lactose to lactate in their bodies in a natural process, so it's already homogenized and ready to drink by the time they produce the milk," says Wend, whose company's sales increased by 27 percent in 2005.

Laura Howard, owner and founder of Petaluma, Calif.-based Laloo's Goat's Milk Ice Cream Co., producer of the only goat milk ice cream on the market, agrees that goat milk products are a great alternative for customers with dairy consumption issues. "A lot of people have developed overly acidic profiles in their bodies from years of eating acidic and heavily processed foods. Goat's milk is an amino regulator, which means it automatically calms down and alkalinizes the system, whereas cow's milk has an acidic effect." Howard also notes that goat's milk has more potassium, vitamin A, thiamin and niacin than cow's milk, and that Laloo's ice cream naturally has half the fat of cow's milk ice cream. Howard's business has expanded 20-fold in the last year.

Goat's milk may also be helpful for people who have an actual allergy to the protein in cow's milk. "While goat milk has … protein, it is of a different makeup, and most people are not allergic to goat dairy," says Jennifer Lynn Bice, owner and founder of Sebastopol, Calif.-based Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery.

Sheep milk products
Not as well-known as goat's milk, sheep's milk is also easily tolerated by most consumers. "Sheep milk fat is 25 percent medium-chain triglycerides, which are healthy fatty acids, are easily digested and are not stored in the body as fat," says Nancy Clark, co-owner of Old Chatham, N.Y.-based Old Chatham Sheepherding Co., producer of sheep milk cheese and yogurt. "While goat's milk has a unique taste profile, sheep's milk tastes very similar to cow's milk."

In fact, a summer 2000 study published in Sheep Dairy News found that 83 percent of people who were intolerant to cow's milk preferred sheep's milk to any other milk substitutes including soy, goat and rice milk. Researchers also found that 99 percent of the 199 participants were tolerant to sheep's milk.

Yak milk products
Yak's milk is harvested from nomadic yak herds on the Tibetan Plateau in China, 14,000 feet above sea level. "We are helping Tibetans preserve their traditional way of life by bringing this unique product to market," says Paola Vanzo, the Tibetan Plateau yak cheese project manager for the Trace Foundation, a New York-based nonprofit organization that promotes the sustainable development of Tibetan communities within China.

Because yak's milk, yogurt and butter are difficult to transport, Trace focuses on importing yak cheese, which can be more easily shipped and sold in faraway markets. "The composition of the yak milk varies over the season, but averages 6.7 percent milk fat and approximately 11 percent nonfat milk solids, making it about twice as rich as cow's milk," Vanzo says. Yak milk cheese has a mild, herbal flavor and a protein structure that enables it to get crisp without melting and running. "It grills well on sourdough toast, making a delicious crostini," Vanzo says. Yak cheese can be purchased in the United States from The Cheese Works Ltd. based in Ringwood, N.J.

Water buffalo milk products
Another dairy alternative is water buffalo's milk. Like goats and sheep, water buffalo, which are indigenous to Southeast Asia, South America and some parts of Italy, produce milk that is more easily digestible than cow's milk and often can be consumed by those allergic to cow's milk.

Adrian Grundy, president of Woodstock, Vt.-based Woodstock Water Buffalo Co., maker of water buffalo yogurt, says water buffalo's milk contains a different form of casein (a milk protein) than cow's milk. "The casein protein is usually what causes most of the problems for milk-allergic people. All animal milks have it, but the makeup can be different for different animals. There are two types—A1 and A2," Grundy says.

According to the World Guernsey Cattle Federation, 75 percent of the world's 300 million dairy cows produce milk that contains the A1 casein. "There is a somewhat controversial claim that this milk, which is drunk by most people in the Western world, could be a cause of diabetes, heart disease, autism and schizophrenia in people with immune deficiencies. It is also claimed that the protein beta-casein A2 is benign in this respect," WGCF reports.

"Water buffalo milk has a higher content of A2 than A1," Grundy says.

Furthermore, water buffalo's milk has a higher calcium and protein content than cow's milk and also contains 50 percent more nonfat milk solids, which gives water buffalo milk yogurt a thick, creamy texture without the addition of thickening agents like pectin or gelatin.

Nut and grain milks
Milk made from nuts and grains offers a unique alternative for those who cannot digest any dairy and want a versatile beverage for cooking and drinking. Nut milks, like almond and hazelnut, have the advantage of being gluten-free. Rice milk is especially light in calories, and oat milk is substantially lower in sugar while still retaining a sweet taste. Kevin Tisdale, director of marketing at Tualatin, Ore.-based Pacific Natural Foods, finds these milk alternatives to be "great for consumers who want something different. They're very smooth and clean-tasting, and most have a superior mouth feel that is reminiscent of real cow's milk."

SPINS reports that sales of alternative milk products—defined as almond, hazelnut, multi-grain and oat—were up 21 percent in 2005, while Pacific's alternative milk products had a sales increase of 13 percent that same year.

Milking consumers' opinions
When it comes to spreading the word and marketing these products, the plan is simple: Sample, sample, sample. Grundy, whose Woodstock Water Buffalo Co. saw 250 percent growth in 2005 and is expecting to triple that in 2006, asserts, "Sampling is a huge part of marketing and is responsible for converting 99 percent of our consumers."

Many manufacturers are eager to help retailers in their sampling efforts. Woodstock offers individually sealed half-ounce yogurt cups that retailers can hand out. "When you're pushing new, different products, it's key to offer samples. People aren't going to just randomly buy something unless they know they like it," Grundy says.

Wend agrees. "Customers are always game to try something new." And with a world of dairy and dairy alternative options out there, what are you waiting for?

Christine Spehar is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 5/p. 22, 26

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