It’s time to start taking plant-based cheese seriously

From startups using AI technology to big-name dairy cheese manufacturers, innovative plant-based vegan cheese products are ready to compete.

Nick Collias, Contributing writer

June 7, 2024

3 Min Read
Plant-based dairy products.

At a Glance

  • A plant-based bleu cheese made with AI technology was nominated for, then disqualified from, a cheese industry award.
  • The idea that plant-based cheese has to taste “different” or “off” compared to dairy might be about to change.
  • Major global cheesemakers are doubling down on plant-based formulas and releasing plant-based versions of iconic cheeses.

Walk through a grocery store today, and at first glance, you may not be able to tell the dairy-based and plant-based cheese products apart. 

The packaging and design of Kraft plant-based American cheese singles, Philadelphia spreadable vegan cream cheese, and Kraft NotMac&Cheese are nearly indistinguishable from the dairy versions. However, as Food & Beverage Insider staff writer Scott Miller explained in an article on the alt-dairy market, that illusion ends at the table. One taste of most commercial nondairy cheeses is enough to let you know you’re not in Wisconsin anymore. 

As for plant-based cheese competing head-to-head against the world’s top dairy cheeses? That’s a stretch. Or at least it was until early this year, when California plant-based cheesemaker Climax Foods was nominated for … and then disqualified from … a prestigious international competition. 

But this upstart brand is making a strong case that vegan cheese is here to stay — and some major dairy producers are in full support. 

About Climax Foods 

Climax Foods was founded in 2019 by Oliver Zahn, Ph.D., an astrophysicist and former head of data science at both Google and Impossible Foods. But at home, Zahn is also “a big cheese lover that for ethical reasons had transitioned out of cheese-eating gradually.” 

Zahn’s startup uses artificial intelligence (AI) to isolate the functional properties of animal-based foods. The platform then looks for plant-based sources of the same ingredients, creating the recipe for a nutrient-rich “functional milk” that then can be made into cheese in any dairy facility. 

Zahn says Climax’s four current cheeses — camembert, feta, blue and chevre — “in blind tastings are indistinguishable, and are nutritionally superior and cheaper to produce” than traditional milk-based cheeses. So it was no surprise to him when he was told in January 2024 that the company’s blue cheese was going to be the first vegan cheese ever nominated as a finalist at the Good Food Awards. 

“It poses some interesting questions, like ‘What is cheese?’” Zahn said of the nomination. “Is it the fact that it’s made from a cow, or is it the fact that humans use microorganisms in a targeted way to make this beautiful-tasting thing?” 

The award competition was seemingly not ready for those questions, though, as Climax was disqualified just days before the awards ceremony for not being “retail-ready”; a development that Food & Wine and other commentators called “suspicious.” Days later, the Good Food Foundation announced that in future competitions, “food tech” would be a separate contest category from dairy. 

To dig deep into the details of the controversy misses the larger point of the award, though. For the first time, plant-based cheese and dairy were compared by recognized experts as equals — and the plants came out on top. Or as Zahn posted on LinkedIn days after the contest, “According to the judges of the [Good Food Awards], we have already won!” 

The next big step in plant-based cheese 

The Good Food Awards controversy definitely didn’t close the door on Climax Foods, or on vegan cheese in general. The global market for plant-based cheeses is growing robustly, with Zion Market Research estimating it will be worth $4.72 billion by 2026. And Climax Foods is poised to enter grocery stores in the near future under names familiar to millions of shoppers (and especially parents) worldwide. 

In April 2023, French multinational cheesemaker Bel Group acquired an equity stake in Climax and announced plans to produce a next-generation “disruptive solution” with plant-based versions of Laughing Cow, Babybel and Boursin cheeses. Zahn told Food & Beverage Insider the Climax-made Babybel is set to be released in 2025, and will be able to stand up against dairy equivalents in nutrition, taste and price. 

“It’s literally better in every way, and that is why these products will replace animal products completely,” he opined. “It's not going to be through any ethical arguments. It's not even going to be through health arguments — even though they are healthier and have no allergens like dairy cheese. It's going to be that the product tastes as good or better and is cheaper.” 

About the Author(s)

Nick Collias

Contributing writer

Nick Collias is a writer and editor with over a decade of experience working in the health and fitness industry. From 2016 to 2021, he was the host of the Bodybuilding.com Podcast, interviewing elite athletes and training thought-leaders on a wide range of exercise, nutrition and lifestyle topics. Additionally, he has worked for the last 20 years as a longform print and online journalist, as well as a book author, ghostwriter and editor. 

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