Sustainability concerns raise consumer interest in non-dairy protein sources, from precision fermentation and GMOs to organic and regenerative pea protein.

Todd Runestad, Content Director,

November 15, 2023

5 Min View

At a Glance

  • Have we reached peak cow?
  • Protein remains a huge desire for consumers.
  • Introducing wholly natural, field-focused pea protein sans off-flavors.

The sustainability trend is decidedly influencing consumer purchasing decisions, and a high profile aspect of that equation has to do with corn-fed, methane-flatuating cows. The dairy lobby long ago lost the battle to excise “milk” from white-colored drinks that can be poured on breakfast cereal but are not derived from cows. Soymilk was the first dairy alternative drink, but that earthy-flavored drink has itself long since given way to almonds, oats, coconuts, hemp and more.

It begs the question about whether we have reached peak cow? Are consumers still buying burgers? Are they looking for other protein sources away from the feedlot?

“Protein is a huge desire for customers,” said Gretchen Daugherty, account manager for UNFI, which is the distributor of all things natural and organic to bricks and mortar retailers across the country. “They’re looking for how to add it into their diets. Pea protein. Quinoa. Customers are looking at—even with the plant-based meats—what are the ingredients? Is that something I want to put into my diet?”

A case in point is the Impossible Burger story. It was a sexy launch a half-dozen years ago, but the bloom has come off that rose, thanks in no small part to consumer pushback over just exactly how the product was made, and whether that truly counted as natural anymore.

That has led to a lot of consumer kvetching over twin values—natural and organic versus sustainable.

In the case of so-called precision fermentation, whey protein is the end product, but cows are not a part of the equation. Brands ballyhoo the fantastic reduction in resources like water and carbon in the creation of the protein source, but part of the production process includes GMOs—which have long since been labeled taboo by core natural product shoppers. Perhaps precision fermentation is the way for GMOs to live up to their potential as a sustainable way to provide positive nutrition, but a lot of consumers feel burned by GMOs 1.0 which, as it turned out, had nothing to do with feeding the world with more nutritious food but rather just a means of boosting chemical company profits.

A wholly natural, field-focused source for protein these days is that derived from peas. Suppliers are even able to deliver non-GMO, certified organic pea protein without that dank flavor that traumatized children around the dinner table.

This is because of the yellow pea seed varieties that have been specially selected to minimize the off-flavors normally attributed to peas. They can even be grown with regenerative agriculture practices implemented.

“It really doesn’t add any flavor to it that I’ve seen,” said Daugherty. “I’m seeing brands that you would taste and be like, this isn’t a dairy product? I think we’ll see the trend heat up.”

About the Author(s)

Todd Runestad

Content Director,, Natural Products Insider

Todd Runestad has been writing on nutrition science news since 1997. He is content director for and Natural Products Insider digital magazines. Other incarnations: supplements editor for, Delicious Living!, and Natural Foods Merchandiser. Former editor-in-chief of Functional Ingredients magazine and still covers raw material innovations and ingredient science.

Connect with me here on LinkedIn.


Todd writes about nutrition science news such as this story on mitochondrial nutrients, innovative ingredients such as this story about 12 trendy new ingredient launches from SupplySide West 2023, and is a judge for the NEXTY awards honoring innovation, integrity and inspiration in natural products including his specialty — dietary supplements. He extensively covered the rise and rise and rise and fall of cannabis hemp CBD. He helps produce in-person events at SupplySide West and SupplySide East trade shows and conferences, including the wildly popular Ingredient Idol game show, as well as Natural Products Expo West and Natural Products Expo East and the NBJ Summit. He was a board member for the Hemp Industries Association.

Education / Past Lives

In previous lives Todd was on the other side of nature from natural products — natural history — as managing editor at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. He's sojourned to Burning Man and Mount Everest. He graduated many moons ago from the State University of New York College at Oneonta.


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