Califia Farms CEO weighs into plant 'milk' debate: ‘The consumer has never been confused'

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Labeling conventions in plant-based ‘dairy’ are a hot topic right now, with two leading players (Almond Breeze and Silk) hit with false advertising lawsuits this week, and a Senate Bill urging the FDA to enforce standards of identity for milk, cheese and yogurt. So where does Califia Farms, one of the leading brands in the plant-based segment, stand on this issue?

Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA at the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco, Califia Farms CEO Greg Steltenpohl said he supported farmers, but didn’t think consumers were confused about the source or nutritional credentials of plant-based milks.

'We always use a modifier whenever the word ‘milk’ is used'

As for the labeling, he added: “The matter of positioning is extremely important… We’ve had a huge amount of success by putting the words ‘dairy free’ on the front of all of our packages, and we always use a modifier whenever the word ‘milk’ is used, so we use ‘almondmilk,’ ‘coconutmilk,’ ‘cashewmilk,’ all together, in one phrase.

“So in our estimation, the consumer has never been confused.”

Consumers buy almondmilk and other dairy-free milks for lots of reasons, from avoiding lactose or cutting calories to animal welfare or the environment, he said, not simply because they think it’s more nutritious than dairy: “I think the growth of dairy-free beverages has been supported by underlying [consumer] trends.

“I think the consumer has spoken, and we’re proponents of consumer choice, and I think clear labeling is pretty much already present, and we go out of our way to make sure that it is.”

In the early days of soymilks and the first almond milks there was very little protein’

But can the nutrition of plant-based milks be improved?

“The area of plant-based beverages is highly dynamic,” said Steltenpohl, “and Califia has many products with proteins that are nearly equivalent to cow’s milk, and we’ll be launching more extensions of those lines that have full equivalency and beyond.

“In the early days of soymilks and the first almond milks there was very little protein, but most of the modern producers are shifting, and by the end of the year, we’ll probably have about eight SKUs that all have substantial amounts of protein.”

Asked whether the FDA should step in and clarify the situation one way or another, he said: “I think the FDA will sort out its own sense of priorities in the midst of many other issues. Food safety is probably the first thing this administration will be thinking about as opposed to increasing regulation.

‘Legumes and nuts make a particularly attractive combination’

So what other ingredients aside from nuts is Califia Farms exploring as a base for future innovations?

According to Steltenpohl: “We do think that legumes, for example, in combination with nuts, make a particularly attractive combination, as you get the macro-nutritional profile and you still have the ability to have a very clean and neutral taste profile.

“For us in terms of future directions, we’re looking at increasing nutrient density in particular with proteins, but also in the ways milks combine so well with botanicals for example.

“I think in the history of the dairy industry, if you look back, they have tended to focus on things like banana milk or chocolate milk or strawberry milk for children, and I think as parents raise their children in a more conscious way, they are looking for things that are not adding sugars but are adding true nutrients.”

"We’ve had a huge amount of success by putting the words ‘dairy free’ on the front of all of our packages, and we always use a modifier whenever the word ‘milk’ is used, so we use ‘almondmilk,’ ‘coconutmilk,’ ‘cashewmilk,’ all together, in one phrase."

Innovation in processing

Asked about innovations in the plant-based creamers space, in which Califia Farms has launched a series of new products over the past year, he said: “Califia has distinguished itself by paying just as much attention in terms of innovating in process, as it has in terms of ingredients.

“We start with the whole blanched raw almond as a point of difference, we don’t use a cooked almond and then we also have chosen to use a soaking process that gives our products a more emulsified smoother mouthfeel.

“For the creamers, a big innovation for us this year is a new type of processing that increases, even beyond our first generation products, that smooth and kind of mixing quality with somewhat slightly acidic beverages like coffee.

“In addition we pioneered a new custom-designed pour lid that allows the consumer to finely control the pour speed so overall there’s a really organoleptic advancement and a natural feel to our products that engages the consumer.”

Califia Farms unveiled a new 25.4oz bottle for its line of almond milk creamers at the Winter Fancy Food Show, featuring a custom-designed lid that allows the consumer to finely control the pour speed.

77% growth in 2016

One of the most dynamic players in the dairy-free space in recent years, Califia Farms notched up 77% sales growth across all channels in 2016, and occupies "the number one sales position for its almondmilks and ready-to-drink cold brew coffees in the natural channel," said the company, citing SPINS data.

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