Cheese, a cultural touchstone for the French, is probably the last bastion of traditional food to be disrupted by the adoption of veganism as consumers opt for more sustainable lifestyle choices. The rising demand for 100% dairy-free cheese alternatives is expected to generate total revenues of over $2.6bn for vegan cheese globally by 2027, according to Grand View Research.
Joining the foodtech revolution in 2017, engineer Nour Akbaraly founded Les Noveaux Affineurs ("The New Refiners") to make a positive impact on the dairy food chain and incentivize French consumers to make healthier environmentally-conscious food choices. Akbaraly spent nearly two years developing the perfect recipe using plant-based ingredients and technology. He finally found a blend of legumes that could be fermented and transformed into a paste that resembles traditional cheese.
“Like artisan cheesemakers, we enhance our raw ingredients with both fermentation and maturing. By mastering and adapting the know-how, we manage to make our plant-based products delicious,” Akbaraly said.
By 2019 Les Noveaux Affineurs had made its first sales online and also started selling its 100% plant-based cheese products to over 20 specialist food stores across France. “Thanks to our early-stage R&D investments, we gained a strong competitive edge in the market,” he added.
In February 2020, the Paris-based startup secured its first seed funding of over €2m backed by French VCs Demeter Partners and Newfund Capital. Also joining the round was Geneva-based Beyond Investing, which launched the first vegan-themed ETF on the New York Stock Exchange in 2019, focusing on investments in vegan and cruelty-free startups.
Initially targeting early adopters like vegans, flexitarians and consumers with lactose intolerance, the French foodtech also plans to reach out to younger consumers. “Millennials are really in this dynamic of wanting to change the world, in particular by finding products that are more neutral for the environment," said Newfund investment director Anne-Sophie Nedellec.
Creating vegan cheese gastronomy
Akbaraly worked as a consultant for five years before venturing into foodtech. The Centrale Lille University alumnus became increasingly fascinated by the world of gastronomy, culinary taste and emerging food innovation technologies. “I wanted to initiate a project that combined gastronomy, plant products and innovation," he recalled. Besides creating plant-based cheeses to overcome the environmental, ethical and health challenges of animal-based food products, he was also keen to ensure that vegan alternatives have the same French gastronomic characteristics.
Like artisan cheesemakers, we enhance our raw ingredients with fermentation and maturing
“I was trained as an engineer, and it was important for me to be able to work closely with research laboratories so that I could continue to learn,” he said. Akbaraly finally discovered the optimum mixture of soy and cashew nuts to produce the macro-nutrient composition needed to replicate cheese fermentation. The soy high protein content and saturated fats of cashew nuts were perfect for the fermentation process to transform both texture and taste.
After extensive R&D, six different cheeses across two product lines were created. The gourmet wheels category is made from cashew and soy that were fermented and matured for several weeks. The fresh and spreadable line is available plain, or with onion, garlic and organic herbs.
Only organic and clean-label ingredients are used, without any additives or preservatives. The company uses certified organic and Fairtrade cashew nuts from Bình Phước and Đồng Nai in Vietnam which are rich in biodiversity with limited carbon emissions. The salt is sourced locally from the Camargue region and the 100% organic and GMO-free soybeans are also grown in France.
Better nutritional properties are derived from the vegan proteins – double calcium and 10 times less saturated fat – than traditional fresh cheese. According to Les Noveaux Affineurs, the special cheese-making process also reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 85% and uses 70% less water compared to dairy equivalents, making it an appealing choice for both vegans and health and environmentally-conscious consumers.
Scaling production to go global
Akbaraly kickstarted the initial idea with support from INRAE, a public research institution focused on solving food, agricultural and environmental issues. The startup also joined the Food Inn Lab incubation program run by AgroParisTech.
He also engaged with master cheese-refiners and culinary experts to develop his concept further and create a gourmet-class delicacy focused on taste and a new cheese variety that’s more than just a vegan alternative to traditional dairy cheese. The startup is now collaborating with plant-based enthusiasts in the food sector and Michelin-starred chefs, including Sylvestre Wahid of Restaurant Sylvestre and Christophe Moret of Shangri-La Hotel, to create new vegan cheese alternatives.
The cheese products are now available in dedicated stores across France, Belgium and Switzerland. The company also sells online, shipping to customers in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, UK, Germany, Netherlands and the Iberian regions. The VC funding last year will be used to scale up production and accelerate international expansion. “We no longer want our production to limit our sales,” Akbaraly said.
“Our products are more expensive than dairy cheese and since they are fresh products, the logistics costs can be very high,” he added. “Our web customers often buy a large quantity and freeze it. We, therefore, have a big stake in the distribution part, to be physically present and close to them,” he said at the New Food Invest virtual conference in March.
Besides boosting online sales, plans for 2021 will focus on reinforcing B2B2C growth in the organic and conventional retail sectors. The company will also strengthen partnerships with food services providers who had to delay vegan cheese projects due to Covid-19 restrictions.
According to investor VC Demeter Partners, sales of vegan and vegetarian products are projected to increase 60% by the end of the year. Akbaraly is also optimistic about the future for plant-based cheeses. “We have the ambition to be a real game-changer in such a booming segment,” he said.