Danone blends plant and dairy protein for flexitarian-friendly formula without nutritional compromise

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

Danone discusses its new plant and dairy hybrid formula / Pic: GettyImages Laikwunfei
Danone discusses its new plant and dairy hybrid formula / Pic: GettyImages Laikwunfei

Related tags: Infant formula, Danone

Danone unveiled what it described as an ‘industry first’ this week: a new infant formula that blends plant and dairy ingredients. Manuela Borella, Vice President of Global Plant Based Strategy & Business Acceleration, tells FoodNavigator the approach brings together the ‘best of both’ dairy and plant ingredients, delivering a ‘nutritionally complete’ baby food that has a 30% smaller carbon footprint than other powdered formulas.

Danone is preparing to launch its first ever Dairy & Plants Blend baby formula under the Nutrilon brand in the Netherlands.

The product has been developed to appeal to parents who want more ‘vegetarian and flexitarian’ options for their babies. “We’ve found that parents and consumers in the Netherlands are very interested in plant-based foods,”​ observed Manuela Borella, Vice President of Global Plant Based Strategy & Business Acceleration.

Danone said plant-based consumption is growing ‘substantially’ in Europe, pointing to data from the Smart Protein Project that shows over one-third (37%) of EU consumers are choosing a vegan, vegetarian or flexitarian diet. Moreover, 69% of parents now prefer their children to eat more plant-based foods, a recent OnePoll survey revealed.

But, Danone said, until now there have been ‘few options’ for parents if they decide to move on from breastmilk and want to make food choices that are ‘healthy, more plant-based and better for the planet’.

Delivering the ‘best of both dairy and plants’

If consumers are looking for more plant-based options, why not just roll out a plant-based formula? We have certainly seen an uptick in innovation in this space. For instance, French producer Bébé M produces an organic infant formula that is dairy-free, soy-free, gluten-free, and palm oil-free; Else Nutrition has developed a 100% plant-based formula made from ingredients like almond, buckwheat and tapioca that the company says has 'all macronutrients and 20+ essential vitamins and minerals'; and Nestlé-owned Gerber offers the Good Start line of plant-based formulas in the US. 

Borella told FoodNavigator that Danone decided to develop a blended hybrid product because it leveraged the ‘best of both dairy and plants’.

Sixty percent of the protein contained in the formula is derived from non-GMO soy, Danone revealed.

Soy is a well-established ingredient in baby formulas. It has long been recognized as a suitable source of plant-based protein for infant and follow-on formulas, with the The European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology Hepatology and Nutrition (ESPGHAN) Committee on Nutrition stating back in 2006​: ‘soy protein formulae can be used for feeding term infants’.

However, ESPGHAN added: "Soy is a source of protein that is inferior to cows' milk, with a lower digestibility and bioavailability as well as a lower methionine content. For soy protein infant formulae, only protein isolates can be used, and minimum protein content required in the current European Union legislation is higher than that of cows' milk protein infant formulae. Soy protein formulae can be used for feeding term infants, but they have no nutritional advantage over cows' milk protein formulae and contain high concentrations of phytate, aluminum, and phytoestrogens."

Danone is getting around any nutritional short-comings associated with using plant-proteins in infant formula by leaning on the nutritional strengths of dairy ingredients such as whey, casein and lactose.

“Just under half (40%) of the required protein in this new recipe comes from dairy ingredients – specifically casein and whey protein from cow’s milk as well as lactose. Lactose is an important source of carbohydrates for babies and also an essential nutrient found in breastmilk. This unique combination of both plant and dairy ingredients allows us to offer a combination of nutrients found in both plants and breastmilk. And this formulation has been shown to be nutritionally complete, supporting a baby’s normal growth and development,”​ Borella told this publication.

“As a mother of four, I appreciate parents want the very best nutrition for their baby’s healthy growth and development. At Danone, we also recognize many parents want to introduce plant-based, vegetarian and flexitarian options into their baby’s diet, while still meeting their baby’s specific nutritional requirements. Our new Dairy & Plants Blend baby formula has been developed with these needs top of mind.”

The inclusion of plant-based protein in the formulation does offer some developmental benefits, the VP continued. With its ‘mild taste of plants’, the Dairy & Plants Blend formula is intended to ‘help familiarize babies and toddlers with plant flavours in a gentle way’. This can help shape future food preferences, the hope being that young children will be less adverse to eating their veggies as they are weaned onto solid foods. 

“Over the past few years, there have been various peer-reviewed publications which indicate that exposing babies to flavours early in life can shape future food choices. For example, already in 2011, in the peer-reviewed journal ‘Digestion’, research demonstrated​ there is a sensitive learning period in the first several months of life during which unpalatable flavours can be rendered palatable,”​ Borella elaborated. 

Climate smart baby food with 30% fewer carbon emissions

The plant-based ingredient content – as well as fully-recyclable packaging – also contributes to the product’s lower carbon footprint.

Calculating the carbon emissions linked to sourcing the ingredients, producing, packaging and transporting products to distributors and retailers, Danone found that the Dairy & Plants Blend has a 30% lower CO2 footprint per pack than other powdered formulas offered under the Nutrilon brand.

“Using more plants in the recipe as well as fully recyclable packaging helps lower the carbon footprint of the Dairy & Plants Blend Formula compared to our existing range of powdered formulas available in the Netherlands,"​ Borella said. 

"We recognize consumers are increasingly looking for food options that fit with vegetarian, flexitarian and plant-based diets and lifestyles, both from a health as well as an environmental standpoint. In the Netherlands – our first launch market – the 30% lower CO2 emissions messaging [will be included] on the packaging of our Nutrilon branded Dairy & Plants Blend recipe​.

“We believe this new recipe fits well with our Nutrilon baby formula brand – a brand whose motto is ‘Trust your choices, trust Nutrilon’ whichever feeding journey a parent chooses – including opting for flexitarian or vegetarian diets.”

While the concept will make its debut in the Netherlands, Danone sees wider potential for dairy and plant blends in the infant formula category and expects to continue to drive innovation across its global brands, we were told. “Danone is planning on introducing this new recipe during the second half of 2022 and in 2023 in other markets under Danone’s global Aptamil brand. We’ll be able to provide more details on which countries closer to time of launch in these markets.”

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