What can a brand of plant-based yogurt tell us about the consumer market?

Have you ever found a product you really loved and consistently purchased? As a person of habit and a health-conscious consumer, I found a plant-based yogurt in 2016 that I absolutely loved. Over time, it became more difficult to find the yogurt on shelves, and I wondered… why? This non-dairy yogurt had a superior nutritional profile compared to competing products — it was high in protein, low in added sugar, and contained all-natural ingredients. Moreover, it wasn’t hard to find food blogs and articles raving about this product. The product was Vega brand cashew milk yogurt alternative.

What is (or what was) Vega cashew milk yogurt?

Vega cashew milk yogurt was available in four flavors at my local grocery cstore: vanilla, raspberry, strawberry, and blueberry. The ingredients for the vanilla flavor are below:

Ingredients: cashewmilk (filtered water, cashews), pea protein, chicory root extract, coconut sugar, natural flavors, fruit pectin, guar gum, vanilla bean specks, stevia leaf extract, monk fruit extract, live and active cultures (s. thermophilus, l. bulgaricus, and bifidobacterium lactis).

For the other flavors, vanilla bean specks were replaced with real fruit and fruit puree. For the raspberry & strawberry flavors, real fruit & fruit puree are listed as the 4th & 6th ingredients, respectively. For the blueberry flavor, blueberry fruit & blueberry puree are the 5th & 6th ingredients, respectively.

The nutrition facts for 1 serving, or 5.3 oz, of the vanilla flavored yogurt is below (the nutritional profile is similar for the other flavors):

In a 5.3 oz serving of vanilla yogurt, there are 13 grams of protein, mainly from pea protein. Coconut sugar is the main sweetener that contributes to the reasonable 7 grams of sugar. (For reference, it is not uncommon to see sugar content that is double that amount in other yogurts. Just take a look at your grocery store’s dairy/non-dairy yogurt section).

The nutritional label alone was enough to win me over for an initial purchase and taste test. I found the taste wonderful; tangy yet sweet, creamy yet light. But, food bloggers and consumers alike, appeared to love or hate this product. Some people perceived the texture to be unusual and did not like it. Others found it too sweet. Below are a few examples of reviewer comments, the good & the bad, from godairyfree.org:

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Positive comments

Healthnut: “The only non dairy yogurt I enjoy and has good consistency. Awesome flavor choices (blueberry is my favorite) and the high fiber is a huge plus. Great protein to carb and fat ratio as well. The nutritional profile and taste is worth the minor splurge.”

Tarah: “Absolutely best vegan yogurt and was awesome for my children! They LOVED it and it had enough protein, and little sugar, to be worth it. I was really bummed when it was gone at Sprout’s and Grocery Outlet and when O called Sprout’s they said they won’t be getting more.”

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Negative comments

Linda: “Consistency is way too watery, not like yogurt at all.”

Ava: “I was excited to try. I purchased at Sprouts. Paid $2.89
Cons: The Strawberry flavor in my opinion taste horrible. I couldn’t determine the actual flavor but it is sweet but tart kinda sour. Fact: The consistency was watery/runny. The color for strawberry was not pink more like a mauve. I notice it was grainy.
Pros: It didnt not smell bad. The packaging was cool.
Take away: Usually like Vega products but this one was terrible. I will not buy this product again.”

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A few key takeaways from reading a limited sample of reviews reveals the following:

People who liked the yogurt

  • praised it’s nutritional profile
  • thought it was worth the cost

People who disliked the yogurt

  • disliked the texture (watery)
  • thought it was expensive

Overall, the yogurt had a 3.5 star rating, which puts it near a C- on a 5-point scale. The figure below, also taken from godairyfree.org, shows the distribution of reviewer ratings of Vega cashew milk yogurt. In this dataset, the reviews are not further categorized to reflect ratings across different flavors.

https://www.godairyfree.org/product-reviews/vega-protein-cashewmilk-yogurt

The sample size of just 15 reviewers is limited. Despite this limitation, the data suggests that just under half of all reviewers found the yogurt “Excellent” while less than a quarter of reviewers found the yogurt “Terrible.” Generally speaking, if “Excellent” signifies loving a product and “Terrible” signifies hating a product, then more reviewers loved the yogurt than hated it. If an “Average” rating signifies the threshold for a reviewer to like the product, then 54% of reviewers liked the product and 43% of reviewers disliked the product. If just over half of the reviewers like the product, then the likability is not much greater than chance. If rating can reliably predict how likely the reviewer were to purchase the product, then a 54% likeability rating would suggest that the product would be purchased at a rate not much greater than random chance. In other words, it cannot be guaranteed that people will buy the product.

Was Vega cashew milk yogurt being pulled off of the shelves because of consumer reviews? As a next step, I was interested to understand Vega’s past and present.

What and Who is Vega?

Vega was co-founded by Charles Chang and Brendan Brazier in 2004. The team comprised a powerful dynamic duo, with Charles bringing in strong business acumen and Brendan providing insight into nutrition and plant-based eating as a vegan athlete. Currently, Charles is the president and founder of the investment company, Lyra. Brendan is a former professional Ironman triathlete and two-time 50km Ultra Marathon Champion. Currently, he is the author of a few books focused on nutrition and a vegan lifestyle for athletes. And Vega, from it’s current website, markets itself as a “Plant-based protein powder brand.”

Acquisition of Vega by WhiteWave Foods
Vega was acquired by WhiteWave Foods in 2015 for $550 million, and it is now considered a subsidiary. WhiteWave Foods is itself a subsidiary of parent company, Danone. In the US markets, Whitewave Foods is known for its packaged foods, and the company distributes a variety of products including Horizon Organic®, Silk®, So Delicious®, International Delight®, and Land O’Lakes®.

As plant-based foods continue to rise in popularity across the US, the acquisition of Vega by WhiteWave Foods was a smart strategical transaction. According to the WhiteWave Foods 2016 Annual Report, plant-based foods and beverages accounted for the majority of net sales in the US, or 39%. Looking at the raw numbers at WhiteWave Foods, plant-based foods brought in about $1.6 billion in net sales in 2016 and about $1.2 billion in 2014. In comparison, the category of organic salads, fruits & vegetables brought in about $540 million (or $0.54 billion) in net sales in 2016 and about $580 million (or $0.58 billion) in 2014.

Plant-based food & beverage sales is increasing at WhiteWave Foods

In the figure below, the percent net sales of each product category is summarized from 2014 to 2016. Net sales of premium dairy and coffee creamers & beverage products remain consistent for the time periods reported. Interestingly, WhiteWave Foods saw a consistent 2% decrease in net sales of organic salads, fruits & vegetables between 2014 and 2016 . In contrast, there was an average 1.5% increase in net sales of plant-based food and beverages for the same time period.

Net Sales (%) at WhiteWave Foods from 2014 to 2016 (data is taken from the WhiteWave Foods 2016 Annual Report). Product categories (appearing in clockwise order) and net sales % from 2014–2016, respectively, include plant-based food & beverages (36%, 38%, 39%); coffee creamers & beverages (29%, 28%, 29%); premium dairy (19%, 20%, 19%); and organic salads, fruit & vegetables (17%, 15%, 13%). Data: https://www.annualreports.com/HostedData/AnnualReports/PDF/NYSE_WWAV_2016.pdf

While the changes are small and the data are limited, there is a trending increase in sales of convenient, plant-based foods. This observation suggests that health-conscious consumers may be buying less plant-based whole foods and opting for convenient plant-based products instead. Alternatively, the increase in sales may be explained by rising prices of plant-based food & beverages at WhiteWave Foods, or a combination of rising prices and rising consumer demand. In any case, the trends suggest that selling more plant-based food & beverages would be desirable in the current market. The next figure reiterates the idea that the plant-based food & beverages product category is growing.

The data suggest that selling plant-based products, such as Vega cashew milk yogurt, would be favorable given that net sales is on the rise in this product category. However, looking at net sales is limited and there may be more to uncover.

So, what happened?

As a preliminary analysis, I have shown that plant-based food sales is growing in a market leader. Analysis of publically available data revealed that a product with a 3.5-star rating may only be liked by 54% of consumers. Surprisingly, consumers may be spending less on raw whole foods and reaching for plant-based packaged foods. Still, several interesting follow-up questions regarding Vega cashew milk yogurt remain:

  • Was it not as selling well compared to other products?
  • Was it too costly to manufacture the product (cashews are generally more expensive compared to similar alternatives, such as almonds)?
  • Is it being re-formulated for an eventual re-release?
  • Was it not part of the company’s plant-based vision anymore?

All in all, a simple question of “what happened to my favorite yogurt” turned into a fascinating dive into the plant-based industry. Until next time.

-Zhannetta

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Zhannetta Gugel

Scientist with interests in ecology, public health, and neuroscience. Former biotech patent analyst. PhD in neurobiology @ Caltech.