Cheese is sacred to the French, and for 150 years the French company Bel Group, which is behind notable cheese brands Babybel, Laughing Cow, and Boursin, has made dairy cheese the traditional way.
But in 2021, the company launched a dairy-free version of Boursin, and in 2022 it launched vegan versions of Babybel and Laughing Cow, along with a new brand, Nurishh, which is devoted entirely to plant-based cheeses.
Now, in 2023, the century-and-a-half-old company is delving further into the future with Climax Foods, a biotechnology startup that uses artificial intelligence to make dairy-free versions of these iconic cheeses, which the company says are udderly “indistinguishable” from their cow-based counterparts.
Powered by the deep intelligence platform, Sage, Climax Foods says they are “the future of tradition.” As Ag Funder News reports, by the end of 2024, Climax and Bel Group will launch plant-based versions of its brands across the U.S. and Europe, starting with the Mini Babybel.
“As a dairy company, we’re making our best efforts to reduce our carbon footprint through regenerative agriculture and other initiatives, but it’s not enough; we need to find other solutions,” chief venture officer Caroline Sorlin told AFN, honing in on the challenges of solving taste, nutrition, texture, and affordability in plant-based cheeses.
So, how is Climax clearing these hurdles?
Where many startups are increasingly turning to innovative solutions like precision fermentation, such as Standing Ovation and Perfect Day—which Bel Group has most recently partnered with—Climax Foods to leverage AI.
According to the Berkeley, California-based startup, their technology is “driven by plant intelligence.”
“The food on your plate represents only a fraction of what plants have to offer,” the company says on its website.
In a nutshell, or rather in a red Babybel shell, Climax Foods uses machine learning to they find out what makes humans crave animal-based foods on a molecular level. Using what they call an “infinite combination” of plant-based ingredients, whether it be plant fats, protein, flavor compounds, et cetera, they optimize an alternative that mimics all the factors of animal cheese, from taste and texture to flavor.
“AI and data can be game changers in food in terms of delivering optimal taste and texture while at the same time making it affordable and sustainable,” Climax Foods CEO and founder Oliver Zahn said in a statement.
With Climax’s algorithms, they can pinpoint how and why cheddar, for example, has such a sharp flavor, provolone a smooth taste, and goat cheese a pungent one, and make a copycat with a perfectly assembled puzzle of different plant pieces.
If an output needs a firmer mouthfeel, they find a plant ingredient that fulfills that. If it needs a more crumbly texture, they get it done, and if it needs to be stretchier, meltier, or softer, they find an imitating plant-based ingredient until they create a version they say is completely “indistinguishable.”
Zahn explained in AFN: “It’s often about using what’s right in front of us more optimally, so using a seed storage protein, let’s say, that’s very abundant, that can be tweaked so you can change the configurations of the protein or you can add a chemical group in a food safe, scalable manner and turn it into functionality that is indistinguishable from the dairy target. There’s also no flavor additives, no gums, and no color agents.”
According to the press release this AI method significantly reduces the time required to create plant-based recipes that harness the vast plant kingdom. “Comparatively, it would take billions of years to create the same recipes using traditional product development.”
The startup even makes sure dairy cheesemakers are involved throughout the process to ensure everything is up to quality and artisanal standards.
On top of its collaboration with Bel Group, Fast Company reports that Climax plans to roll out on a smaller scale in fine dining restaurants with their “fancy cheeses,” like blue, Brie, and goat cheeses, Zahn says.
But with Bel’s partnership, Zahn sees potential to change the food system through “more mass-market products like the ones Bel has been producing for over 100 years.”
Bel is serious about reducing its carbon footprint. By 2030, it wants to balance its portfolio with 50% dairy products and 50% plant-based and fruit products.
“It’s a quite ambitious goal, but we need to have that kind of goal. We have no option,” Sorlin said via Fast Company. “We need to be part of the food transition. If you want to feed the 10 billion people by 2050 while preserving the planet’s resources, you cannot stay within the existing food system.”
Aside from its plant-based and fruit-based alternatives, Bel Group is making a way in the sustainability space through investments in regenerative agriculture; adapting products to support local nutritional needs, upping a product’s zinc and iron levels for example, if local communities need it; increasing affordability of its products, and reducing the number of materials used in packing, and turning to recyclable and renewable alternatives.
In fact, as Bel reports, 70% of Bel packaging is paper-based and 92% is recyclable and/or biodegradable. They have a goal to up that number to 100% by 2025. Plus, the Mini Babybel, which is the debut product of the Climax/Babybel partnership, has been packaged in a bio-sourced cellophane that can be composted at home since 2020.
That same year, Bel Group took a minority stake in Climax Foods, which raised a total of $7.5 million in its 2020 seed round.
“It’s a research and development collaboration,” Zahn told AFN, “where we will find optimal [animal-free] formulations of Bel’s core branded cheeses together and then also work on the Nurishh brand together, and then we will commercialize them together and co-brand them together.”
The need for more plant-based cheese options is growing. One 100 gram-serving of cheese alone is equivalent to about three kilograms of CO2 emissions. That’s about 14.2 kilometers of driving or nearly 9 miles.
Cheese has a bigger carbon footprint than pork, chicken, and fish, and dairy farming is one of the main causes of deforestation around the world. In recent years, the demand for plant-based cheese has grown substantially, seeing a 15.1% increase in sales through 2023. This year, the global plant-based cheese market size is set to be valued at $1.3 billion, and in a decade is projected to have a total market valuation of $5.3 billion.
The reason for this increase? As a study by insights company Fact.MR finds the main causes of the increase are a growing trend of veganism and an increasing preference for plant-based foods whether it be because of concerns about animal cruelty or the rise in lactose intolerance.
Whatever the reason, the switch to plant-based is good, and as Sorlin explains via Fast Company, by Climax partnering with Bel, consumers are more likely to try a plant-based option wrapped in Babybel’s recognizable round red wrapper.
“This is a magic combination in order to democratize plant-based [products],” she said. “It’s easier to penetrate a household with a brand that is famous.”