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Sustainability and IP: The Rise of Dairy Alternatives


9th Nov 2021

As the UK hosts the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, the world is focused on climate change and what actions we can take to address it.

Recent analysis by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation which found meat and dairy accounts for 14.5 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions — the same as all cars, HGVs, aircraft, and ships combined. A move towards more plant-based diets is therefore seen as a key factor for a more sustainable future.

Plant-based Diets

In our previous post we discussed the growing popularity of imitation meat products, which have become an increasingly viable alternative for meat-eaters looking to reduce their environmental impact without a whole-sale change in eating habits.

While avoiding meat has a positive effect on your carbon footprint, not all vegetarian food is equal in terms of environmental impact. Many people may be upset to learn, for example, that cheese has a higher carbon footprint than some meat products. According to a life-cycle analysis carried out by the US non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG), cheese ranks generates 13.5 kilos of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent, a standard unit for measuring carbon footprint) per kilo eaten, making cheese worse for the environment than the production of pork, salmon, turkey, and chicken.

For many of those wishing to make the leap from vegetarian to vegan a major hurdle is how to replace dairy products with plant-based alternatives. Thankfully for them, the market for vegan and lactose-free alternatives is now well-established and growing fast. By some estimates, the global dairy alternatives market is projected to grow from $22.25 billion in 2021 to $53.97 billion in 2028.

Plant-based Milk

While traditional dairy alternatives such as soy milk have been around for centuries, the recent explosion in popularity has driven a huge amount of innovation in the dairy alternative market in recent years.

The Swedish oat-milk company Oatly is one of the biggest names in dairy alternatives, having enjoyed a highly successful IPO in May 2021. As a market leader in oat-based dairy products, Oatly has protected its market position by securing intellectual property rights to protect their brand and the technical innovations behind their products. A basic search for published patent rights naming Oatly as the patent proprietor returns 115 patent publications spread over 11 patent families. These patents and patent applications have titles such as “Vegetable Health Drink”, “Enhanced viscosity oat base and fermented oat base product” and “Refrigerable extended shelf-life liquid batter”. 

Another Swedish entrant to the market is newly launched vegan dairy brand Dug, which has developed a potato-based plant milk that is now on sale in Sweden and the UK. Using a base of potatoes, Dug’s formulation contains pea protein, maltodextrin, chicory fibre, rapeseed oil, and natural flavourings, leading to an impressive carbon footprint that is reportedly far lower than similar oat or almond milks. Dug’s milk has its roots in science and research by Professor Eva Tornberg at Lund University, and Dug has invested in patent applications to ensure that its innovations are protected. A basic search for published patent rights naming Dug’s parent company Veg of Lund as the patent proprietor returns 21 published “Potato emulsion” patent applications spread over 2 patent families.

A number of other major players in the plant-based food market are also indicating a move into plant-milk.

Last year, Impossible Foods revealed their own prototype plant-based “Impossible milk”, which aims to replicate the taste and texture of dairy milk more convincingly than any of the plant-milks that are currently available.

Plant-based giant Beyond Meat, Inc also seems to be heading into dairy alternatives, as they recently applied for 108 US trade marks including one for “Beyond Milk”.

Cheese

Cheese represents another major frontier in the growth of dairy replacements. Non-dairy cheese alternatives have historically been a tad unconvincing, so there is ample space for innovation to achieve plant-based cheeses that taste, smell, melt and stretch like the dairy products consumers are used to.

One company expected to make a big impact in the non-dairy-cheese market is Nobell Foods, who recently raised $75M to bring to market cheeses made from plant-derived dairy proteins. Nobell creates key dairy proteins, including casein, from high-quality soybeans, and uses them to grow plants that contain the same dairy caseins found in animal milks. A basic search shows up 11 US patents and patent applications published in the name of Nobell Foods and related company Alpine Roads, but no patent applications in any other countries. As patent applications are not published until 18 months after they are first filed, however, it is possible that there are still Nobell Foods patent applications that are not yet published.  

Miyoko’s Creamery, one of the current US market leaders in plant-based cheese, recently raised $52M to expand its product range and accelerate global distribution. We were unable to find any patent applications linked to Miyoko’s creamery, so it is possible that the company either relies solely on trade secrets to protect its intellectual property, or that the company does have registered patent rights that are held under another name.

While a strong patent portfolio can benefit any company, this is especially true for those in a rapidly growing and competitive market like plant-based foods. Patents on innovative products and improved manufacturing processes could certainly help companies like Miyoko’s Creamery to maintain their strong position as other companies compete for a share of the growing market.

This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.

Author
Gavin Dundas
Senior Associate
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Would you like to know more? You can talk to Gavin Dundas who will be able to help. Call +44 (0)1223 360 350

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