Sunday, March 3, 2024

Can 100-Year-Old Almond Orchards Make Yogurt Better Than Cows?

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Flexitarians are driving a shift toward dairy-free milk. Yogurt isn’t far behind, either, and according to Ayo Yogurt founder, Matt Billings, there’s more reason than ever to try it.

The dairy-free market is booming. It’s the leading driver of plant-based food sales (behind fresh fruits and vegetables); nearly 40 percent of all households now purchase some type of dairy-free milk. The dairy-free milk category in the U.S. is worth more than $2.5 billion, accounting for more than 35 percent of all plant-based food sales and more than 15 percent of all milk sales (by dollar).

Consumers are giving up dairy for a growing number of reasons, their health chief among them. Lactose intolerance affects about 68 percent of the global population, but for some people, particularly Black and Asian populations, those rates can be even higher, teetering over 90 percent.

People are opting for dairy-free milk products for other reasons, too — namely to decrease their carbon footprint as animal agriculture is a leading driver of climate change. A survey published in 2020 found that 55 percent of respondents were willing to try plant-based food to slow climate change.

The changing taste for dairy

Consumers aren’t just swapping out their milk, though. Dairy-free sales are on the rise for cheese and ice cream and yogurt. And according to Matt Billings, farmer and founder of Ayo Yogurt, when it comes to dairy-free yogurt, almonds are the clear winner.

Billings says Ayo, which makes its yogurt from almonds that come from the family’s farm, is not trying to be an “alternative” to dairy-based yogurt. It’s just yogurt made from almonds. “We are focused every day on making an excellent-tasting yogurt,” Billings told Ethos via email.

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Ayo launched in 2019 as the first fully vertically integrated plant-based yogurt brand in the U.S. The company controls every step of the process from growing the almonds at the family’s orchards to turning them into almond butter that’s used as the base for the vegan yogurt.

“We are not trying to be an alternative to any other product,” Billings says. “Our goal was to make a great-tasting yogurt from our organic almonds and we did just that.”

Those almonds have been in the family for more than 100 years — orchards founded by Billings’ great-grandfather in California in 1913 have been sustaining the family and the exploding almond industry ever since.

Almond nutrition

“Almonds are incredibly nutrient-dense,” Billings says. He cites many health benefits including lowering blood sugar and blood pressure as well as reducing blood cholesterol levels. Almonds are packed with fiber and healthy fat as well as vitamin E, manganese, and magnesium. “The almond is a nutritional hero, creating the base for nourishing vegan yogurt,” he says.

One recent study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that eating nuts were linked with the prevention of abdominal weight gain in older people.

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It’s not just the almonds that make Ayo such a healthy yogurt choice, says Billings. Each serving contains three live active cultures: lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp., bulgaricus streptococcus thermophilus, and bifidobacterium bb-12.

It’s that last strain, the BB-12, that Billings says has well-documented health benefits “having been described in close to 400 scientific publications.” He says studies support BB-12’s health benefits for adults, “such as better immune and oral health, promoting healthy cholesterol levels in the body, and increased bowel movements for adults and the elderly.”

Almonds and the environment

Despite almond yogurt’s benefits, there have been criticisms over the crop, mainly spurred by environmentalists over water usage. Those criticisms though didn’t account for the drought usage or the byproduct usage of almond tree waste.

Instead, it put almonds in a bad light, claiming that it takes more than a gallon of water to grow a single almond — even though they’re significantly less problematic than dairy’s impact on resources like fresh water, feed crops, and its link to climate change.

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Farmers have long disputed these claims, and Billings says his family has planned ahead and is not removing orchards over drought concerns. “The irrigation districts we are in are able to provide enough snow meltwater to us this year although it is limited, it enough to water our trees through our water efficient drip irrigation systems,” he says.

By comparison, according to a 2019 University of Oxford study, dairy milk uses nearly twice as much water as almonds while also contributing more significantly to climate change through emissions, including methane, which is more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide. Almonds are produced by trees, which help sequester carbon and promote biodiversity.

Whatever the reason, consumers are replacing dairy in greater numbers than ever before. But for Ayo, it’s not only about replacing dairy; it’s about making great yogurt.

“We’re definitely seeing a shift in switching from dairy, and the market trends continue to show the growth of nondairy yogurts in the marketplace,” Billings said. “While the trends are encouraging for our brand we simply want to make a product that consumers really enjoy eating.”

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