Just quickly saving the world

No Milk Today? It says that on the vly packaging, but today vly is at MILK. And that fits very well, because as an agency for packaging design, we see ourselves as a partner of change and that is what Nicolas Hartmann is striving for. With “pea milk” he wants to change the dairy market for the long term.

Nicolas is a former competitive athlete and nutritionist for vegan professional athletes. During his studies at Oxford he became firmly convinced that food has a huge impact on our health and our planet. Since then he has been a passionate vegan. Felix from our Food Lab interviewed him.

“Pea milk” is a “Substitute Product“. Why do we need pea milk today and why will it stay that way?

Unfortunately, the alternatives are currently clearly in the minority. 3.6 billion liters of cow’s milk were drunk and only 230 million liters of plant milk. That corresponds to a market share of 7%. We believe, however, that this will change in the future, i.e. a good 80% plant milk will be consumed. The benefits, the consumer value, are more important than the basis of the milk. Whether it’s soy, oats or peas. We want to create products that change people’s habits. For many consumers, the top priority is not what exactly is in the milk. That is why we rely on our good taste and the nutrients that are essential for a healthy diet. We pursue a holistic sustainability approach, which is composed of three ways: Sustainable packaging, short transport routes in production and supply chain, and sustainable healthy ingredients.

You mentioned “Designing your Life”. Instead of advising dairy companies, that meant rethinking the dairy industry. How do you design our lives?

We measure ourselves by impact. Because we cannot produce 3.6 billion liters of plant milk on our own, we look forward to competitors who are accelerating change. Currently, three aspects are still holding up the change:

  1. Price: Herbal alternatives are more expensive for various reasons: 19% VAT is not charged, scaling effects are still a disadvantage but will soon be an advantage. Milk is still subsidized, but this support is also increasingly disappearing.
  2. Taste: Consumers: Inside, they want experience that they love, that they want to have again and again. For a long time it was said: “Plant milk does not go into coffee”. Fortunately, this myth is over. Whether in muesli or cappuccino, now it’s about experiences with the effect: Great, I want that again.
  3. Nutritional values: Oats do worse than the animal equivalent. Peas provide protein, have no saturated fat and are less short-chain carbohydrates. This ensures that we can do without sugar completely and guarantee a positive impact on the blood sugar level. Thanks to the positive amino acid profile, we can also ensure that the vegetable proteins are better metabolized and absorbed.

We want to create change and offer alternatives that are better than the animal variant.

Nicolas Hartmann – Co-Founder of vly

At MILK. it’s about content but also always about packaging. vly relies on a special name and its own design. The structural packaging, however, is very milky. What are the considerations behind this? Were there any ideas for a completely new packaging?

We put a lot of thought into the packaging. From glass to craft packaging that is considered particularly sustainable. In the end, it is the impact that counts for us – that is our most important criterion. That means we have to get out of the eco-scene and move on to the mass market. It helps to stay close to the habits of the consumer, i.e. to the actual expectations of conventional milk. Because our product is very niche. In addition, the feasibility must be guaranteed: Replacing 3.6 billion liters of cow’s milk in Germany alone requires a form that guarantees an impact and is scalable.
With regard to CO2 values, Craft does not do much better. We use bio-based packaging but it is important that the recyclability is increased. The aluminum layer is super thin, but that could be improved. A lot is changing with products and packaging, everyone is looking for sustainable solutions.

A glass filled with vly and a pack of vly unsweetened
vly is working on making its packaging even more sustainable

Your packaging is a benchmark for others, especially when it comes to addressing Gen Z. Is that the main target group?

Our target group is very different. This is a great challenge in communication, but it shows the size of the topic and the market.

In order to be able to address a large target group, visibility is important, does positioning in the refrigerated shelf play a role here?

A giant leap happened in the US when alternatives became available on the refrigerated shelves. Cow’s milk drinkers: don’t look inside on the plant-based milk shelf. Our product does not have to be cooled and it would not make sense for energy reasons to do so anyway. But new product lines such as yoghurt or low-fat quark are entering the refrigerated section and increasing our overall visibility.

vly stands for take off / take off. vly gives you wings? Is vly more than a substitute milk, a new form of energy drink? After all, nutritional values play an important role and you are also targeting vegan athletes. Can you tell us something about brand positioning and the related product appearance?

There is a need to redefine energy. For us, vly also means: “Flying only vegan” but it is less about a short kick and more about a sustainable high energy level. Not a sugar crash, but an energy that is based on the concept of health. A different form of energy than with energy drinks.

The package says “New technology x natural ingredients = vly”, next to it: “vly Unsweetened v2.1” sounds like regular updates – you also talk about it – like software. vly instead of fuel for gamers? Or just to emphasize the innovation of the product?

V2.2 is now available – we believe that plant-based protein products in particular are constantly evolving. Even after each new launch, the optimization continues, we get a lot of feedback and are anything but perfect. But fast and agile. We want to present this development transparently, analogous to software developments. Normal is not constantly being optimized in the food sector, but a lot is focused on marketing. We want to put the customers and their wishes and needs in the foreground again. This is also an analogy to software companies. Of course, within certain limits that are important to us.
It is still not possible to trace these developments chronologically, we write about them in the blog – An overview of the changes is still pending, but could come.

The three founders of vly: Niklas, Moritz and Nicolas
The three founders of vly: Niklas, Moritz and Nicolas (from left)

Moritz is a cook. We also have a food lab with two chefs and a passionate fermentista. Our designers: inside then make packaging for our experiments such as GEMÜSLI. What role does cuisine and enjoyment play for you? And what role did Moritz play in the development?

Moritz brings expertise from the kitchen: sensory knowledge and taste but also a love of food. But then he still studied food technology, our product is also industrial. Creativity and standardization have to come together.
It is difficult to objectify taste as a criterion. For each SKU (Stock Keeping Unit), the taste must be right for the majority of the population. To achieve this, we use various methods: In addition to individual “overall liking”, we supplement the test with sensor panels and use analytical measurement data. It is then important to combine these values in order to meet the right taste. So we try to get “The best of all worlds”.

Does gastronomy also play a role? E.g. vly instead of cream?

No, not so much to be honest. Fats are not our core competence. We take care of proteins. We don’t just want to add sunflower or canola oil. This is becoming more important because it belongs to dairy products, but proteins currently have priority for us, e.g. in the form of low-fat quark, for which there are still no good vegetable alternatives.

Isn’t tofu close? Will it be traditional again after high-tech?

There is still no vegan low-fat quark. This is new territory and we also look at tofu production, but also fermentation processes. It quickly becomes very complex when it comes to upscaling that biotechnologically.
But someone has to try it.

Do you need the additional vitamins or is that an extra benefit for vegans and athletes? And why natural flavors? It doesn’t taste bad, but how would it taste without it? How about a “plain version”?

Honestly, that’s a really exciting question: We don’t think natural flavors are great as ingredients. From a purely scientific point of view, however, it is not questionable with regard to health. It helps to round off the product in terms of taste and enables the balance of a product that is as healthy as possible, which can also reach the mass market.
We want to bring people from cow’s milk to plant products. Before we expect everyone to take care of the B12 intake, we take care of that and have a product that covers this and can replace milk with a view to the nutritional values. In my opinion, nutrients should be supplemented according to scientific knowledge in order to ensure an optimal supply, which is not always given.

Substitute products are still surprisingly expensive compared to milk. How do you see the development here and why does vly still work so well?

This is due to various factors such as subsidies for the dairy industry, scaling, expensive ingredients (e.g. high-quality nutrients such as tri-magnesium citrate) and necessary research. It is also our aim to drive this forward and to do research here in Germany. With a consumption of 1 liter of milk per week, it only adds up to a good € 50 per year. The importance of food is increasing. Food is the basis and a central element that is often not given enough importance – that must and will change.

Yes, we cooks say that too! Are you in contact with other startups, nationally and internationally, who also offer state-of-the-art alternatives to animal products?
And is that a tight-knit community that is driving the revolution from the kitchen or the laboratory?

We went to the incubator in Kitchentown with Mushlabs and Formo, I know Mazen (Rizk) and Raffa (Raffael Wohlgensinger) well.
In the alternative protein area, we know, for example, Heura from Spain, Planted from Switzerland but also like meat in Germany – there are quite a few. But there is also more and more happening at Nestles + Co, who are entering this market: This is the only way to change society. That’s good because there are more investments in the market. In any case, we only have a right to exist if we continue to manufacture more innovative, faster, closer to the customer, more authentic and better products. If we can’t do this, there is no reason why we should exist.

You have just received a large investment, so things are as exciting as ever. Yoghurt and to-go products will be available soon. How far do you think? A complete dairy program including cheese. What role does meat substitute play?

We do not reduce ourselves to MOPRO and see this as a technology platform, there can also be other animal substitute products that are perceived as very healthy, such as skimmed quark, low-fat milk and a few other categories that need to be disrupted. But it is not necessarily about “us against the big players”, but about a change that is supported and driven by everyone.

What division will we have in the supermarket in the MOPRO area in 2030, 2040 or 2050? (animal-vegetable in%)

The proportion of plant-based dairy products is currently around 7%. Due to the generational change, consumers will be much more open to alternatives. The proportion of plant-based dairy products is estimated to be ambitious in 2030: 50%, 2040: 60/70% and by 2050: 80%. We will see that a lot still has to happen, but a lot is already happening.

A lot has happened to you too, and a lot will probably happen in the future!

Yes, that’s how it is!

Thank you very much! With this in mind, we are looking forward to the vly steak.