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Plant-based barista milk alternative challenges and technical solutions by Cargill

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Plant-based milk alternative for coffee: Creating foam worthy of a barista standard

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The plant-based sector continues to grow as consumers make the switch for health and lifestyle reasons.

Plant-based dairy alternative is no longer a niche category. Fuelled by factors including health and sustainability, dairy alternative represents a buoyant market, forecast to grow at a CAGR of 11.2% globally between 2020 and 2027 to over $44.8 billion.1​ Within this, plant-based milk alternative is the most developed segment.

In the APAC region, plant-based milk alternatives continue to climb, with health a key driver. The effects of this shift have been felt across many sectors, including the coffee industry. APAC is the second-highest coffee consuming region in the world and coffee is a mainstay for consumers, fuelling lifestyles from morning to night.

In response, formulators are innovating with ‘barista-grade’ plant-based milk alternatives to meet the demand across foodservice and retail channels for in-home coffee consumers. But how successful has innovation been to date?

“The plant-based barista milk alternative market continues to evolve but there is still plenty of headroom for improvement,” says Jodell Jiang, Dairy Technical Manager at Cargill.

“Challenges arise in terms of achieving desired foamability, taste, and mouthfeel that consumers expect from a milk alternative. Because plant-based milk alternatives are naturally lower in protein and fat than dairy, it is harder to create fine foam when steamed, or the foam collapses as soon as it is poured. This means it’s harder to create a smooth, long-lasting foam that delivers the desired latte art.”

“On top of foamability challenges, plant-based milk alternatives also lack the sweet aftertaste and creamy mouthfeel of dairy – due to having a generally lower solid content and absence of lactose – and this can be a turn off for consumers, too.”

Overcoming technical challenges of plant-based milk alternative

Balancing health and enjoyment is another area that formulators need to solve, too. For formulators, achieving a high-quality dairy alternative that delivers the desired sensorial attributes of taste and mouthfeel, without compromising on health, is key.

Cargill has studied and identified the following areas where plant-based milk alternatives can up their game to match the sensorial attributes of dairy in the cup:

Foamability and height​ A stable and long-lasting foam is essential for the sensorial experience and mouthfeel that consumers expect from a milk-based coffee. They want plant-based milk alternatives to taste and feel like ‘the real thing’.

Latte art friendly​ Consumers expect their coffee to look good in the cup. Some plant-based milk alternatives can’t create enough of the fine micro-foam required to create good latte art, or the foam quickly collapses. Cargill’s Food Solutions ingredients help to stabilise the plant protein and emulsion, incorporate fat for foamability, and therefore stabilise the foam, enabling baristas to create the perfect latte art.

Versatility with coffee formats​ Plant-based milk alternatives should be versatile enough to be used across a range of coffee recipes and milk / coffee ratios, from flat whites to lattes, and all other styles.

Complement coffee flavour​ Whatever the blend of beans or beverage style, coffee needs to be the hero ingredient. Plant-based milk alternatives should provide creaminess, but at the same time allow the coffee flavour to shine.

Acidity balancing​ Coffee is acidic, this acidity will de-stabilise plant protein when plant-based milk alternatives are mixed with coffee. Cargill’s functional system helps to stabilise the protein in this situation.

Sweet aftertaste​ Consumers want a creamy, sweet aftertaste from their coffee that creates an enjoyable experience and motivates them to make or order another cup.

Plant-based dairy alternative solutions

Advances in ingredient technology and processing are driving innovation in the plant-based milk alternatives sector, helping to raise the bar and meet consumer expectations.

Cargill can help formulators deliver on this with a full spectrum of ingredients, encompassing sweetness, texture, enrichment and oils, underpinned by the technical expertise to solve the technical challenges associated with plant-based barista milk alternatives.

“Incorporating Cargill’s Food Solutions ingredients into plant-based milk alternative formulations can solve a range of technical challenges commonly experienced by formulators,” says Cargill’s Jodell Jiang.

“Our ingredient solutions are designed to improve product development in terms of foaming capability, balanced taste, and improve mouthfeel. Beyond plant-based milk alternatives, Cargill also has solutions to help manufacturers create other plant-based products such as yoghurt alternatives and acidified drink.”

The range includes:

Protex Functional System ​This improves foaming capability, foam quality and foam stability in plant-based barista milk alternative formulations, thereby helping to achieve latte art. 

C* SweetmixTM​ Plant-based milk alternatives lack the natural sugar (lactose) that’s present in dairy and responsible for delivering a sweet aftertaste. C* SweetmixTM​ Sweetener Solution adds desired sweetness to plant-based milk alternatives for a balanced aftertaste in coffee recipes.

Cargill®​ High Oleic Canola Oil​ This contributes a creamier mouthfeel to the beverage and provides fat with higher omega content.

As consumer demand and competition within the sector continues to drive quality in the plant-based milk alternatives sector, partnering with Cargill can give formulators the edge when it comes to positioning plant-based products for in-home consumption or solutions for the foodservice industry.

“Cargill is here to help plant-based milk alternative formulators deliver value beyond price point with great tasting and high performing lactose-free products that everyone can enjoy.”


1.​ Meticulous Research. Dairy Alternatives Market by Product Type, Source and Distribution Channel – Global Forecast to 2027​. March 22, 2021.

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