When it comes to plant-based alternatives, the dairy sector is lagging woefully behind: there’s a plethora of pretty amazing plant-based sausages and burgers, but most plant-based dairy products still taste like a compromise.
A new Bay Area-based company called Eclipse Foods is trying to change that by creating a line of animal-free products made with a new proprietary plant-based milk that they think could disrupt the dairy industry.
Rather than just “milking” nuts or oats, however, Steinhart and Bowman are developing a new type of plant-based milk that has micelles, or microscopic structures that help their product mimic the real thing. In addition to having a more milk-like flavor, their product is apparently more versatile than other alternatives out there and can be used to make a wide range of dairy products.
“Basically, we want to become the Impossible Foods of dairy,” co-founder and CEO Aylon Steinhart told me over the phone. Meaning: they want to make plant-based dairy delicious enough that even non-vegans want to eat it. “We won’t change the world without getting flexitarians on board,” explained Steinhart. “The mainstream has to want it.”
Steinhart wouldn’t disclose exactly what kind of dairy alternatives Eclipse would be making, but said that they were currently developing roughly a dozen prototypes based off of their next-gen milk. He mentioned ice cream, cream cheese, and sour cream.
I haven’t tried their products yet so I can’t speak to the taste, but Eclipse Foods seems to be coming along at just the right time. First of all, the demand for plant-based protein is sky-high and on the rise. According to research firm Nielsen, alternative protein sales increased by 20 percent in 2018. Plant-based milk sales increased by 9 percent, and sales of other plant-based dairy products (yogurt, ice cream, etc.) grew by a whopping 50 percent.
Unlike meat alternatives, however, there haven’t been clear front-runners in the plant-based dairy space. Sure, big producers like Danon and Chobani have launched their own products, as have bigger startups like Ripple Foods, but from my tasting experience at least, none of them have been able to tempt me away from the real thing. In fact, some are actually pretty bad.
Steinhart is aware of this hole in the market. “There’s no product that truly appeals to the mainstream,” he explained to me. He hopes that Eclipse will make that product.
Looking at the pedigree of the two co-founders, the company does seem to have a good chance of making products that actually taste good. Steinhart’s co-founder Thomas Bowman is a James Beard Award-nominated chef who helped develop plant-based mayo, cookie dough, and more for JUST (formerly Hampton Creek); Steinhart worked in biz dev for alternative protein nonprofit the Good Food Institute.
Steinhart said it was too soon to say when their products will be available, or how much they will cost. He also wasn’t sure if they would launch in retail, restaurants, or both. To truly follow the Impossible model, Eclipse Foods would have to start selling their goods in high-end restaurants before moving into fast food, and, eventually, grocery stores.
Eclipse Foods was only officially incorporated in January of 2019, so it’s quite young. They’re also part of the prestigious Y Combinator 2019 Winter Class. Steinhart and Bowman are currently Eclipse Foods’ only full-time employees, but they’re about to embark on a hiring spree. Steinhart told me that the company had closed their seed round but wouldn’t disclose details.
All of Eclipse’s plant-based innovation might be rendered moot when startup Perfect Day releases their animal-free dairy made using fermentation. After all, no matter how good an alternative is it’s hard to make it taste as good as — or act just like — the real thing. But until then, there’s room for someone to disrupt the dairy market like Impossible did with meat. And that someone just might be Eclipse Foods.