Interviews

Armored Fresh: “Our Plant-Based Cheeses Are a Combination of Innovation and Culinary Art”

Armored Fresh is a South Korean food tech company focused on producing plant-based alternatives to cheese. The company has developed a range of innovative almond-based products that are said to replicate the taste and texture of dairy cheese, and are infused with nutrients to provide a comparable protein content.

To cater to consumers with nut allergies, Armored Fresh launched a new range of cheese alternatives made from oat milk last year. Several varieties of both the oat and almond-based cheeses are available for retail and food service across the US, including via the company’s online store. In November, Armored Fresh significantly expanded its retail footprint in the country, gaining listings at Fresh Thyme Market, Town and Country Foods, Fred Meyer, and more.

“Plant-based cheese is healthier for you and is good for the environment, but it is only going to help people and the environment if people consume it”

We spoke to Armored Fresh founder and CEO Rudy Yoo to find out more about the company’s innovative technologies and plans for expansion.

Can you give us a bit of background on the journey of Armored Fresh and what motivated you to start the company?
We are a food tech company that specializes in alternative dairy products. We have developed technologies that are patented and have the capacity to produce around 7,000 tons of products annually. We continuously invest in technological research for food innovation. The founding of Armored Fresh is motivated by the fact that there was a great need for great-tasting plant-based cheese products that were also good for you. While technology creating cheese out of plant-based materials has been around for more than 50 years, there is still the problem of taste and nutrition that are not on par with dairy cheese.

Armored Fresh american cheese slices almond
© Armored Fresh

Plant-based cheese is healthier for you and is good for the environment, but it is only going to help people and the environment if people consume it. Therefore, I concluded that if we could solve the product problem, the other problems could also be solved. If a superior product could be delivered, then we can also solve the problem with the environment and help protect our animals.

With a background in food technology, how has your experience influenced your approach at Armored Fresh?
We began our business 24 years ago as a specialized IMC marketing company, and through our experience and accumulated expertise, we developed a data-intensive big data solution and obtained multiple patents. This solution played a significant role in uncovering opportunities for our current alternative food business. Four years ago, we aimed to launch a new product, vegan pizza, under our brick-oven pizza brand. To achieve this, we embarked on developing plant-based cheese. Though we tested numerous existing vegan cheese options, none met our standards.

As soon as we made the decision, we established an alternative dairy research institute and succeeded in launching a cube-type vegan cheese with plain, cheddar, and blueberry flavors, after a year and a half of research based on the goal of achieving the same taste and quality as animal cheese. Our company has a lot of food marketing and public relations experts, plus we’re starting to create opportunities by hiring professional dairy researchers and reinforcing our focus on vegan dairy research technology. The company’s remarkable progress can be attributed to the proficiency of our highly skilled personnel and the proprietary big data solution we have developed in-house.

almond milk vegan cheese cubes
Image courtesy of Armored Fresh

Can you describe the proprietary processes and food technology expertise that Armored Fresh utilizes to create plant-based cheese alternatives?
Our products are a combination of innovation and culinary art. We have an R&D department that consists of a team of R&D scientists and a team of chefs. They work hand-in-hand, as our scientists conduct research and discover ways to improve the properties of our products while our team of chefs works to perfect the taste of each product. We rely on three key innovations for production. Of the three, two are patented, whereas the remaining innovation is a protocol we use internally.

“More consumers will choose the perfect product as it has already caught up with the taste and price of dairy cheese”

Our first patented technology is “Method for Manufacturing Vegetable Lactic Acid Bacteria Fermented Plant Based Milk”, also known as our Key-mix. This patented technology allows plant-based milk to go through a natural fermentation process with the help of lactic acid bacteria. Our second patented technology is “Method For Making Vegetable Cheese Using Plant Based Ingredients”, also known as our Aroma Compound. This innovation laid out the details regarding the cooking temperature, cooling, and much more to replicate and enhance the aroma of cheese in our products.

Our third innovation is called the Taste Analysis Protection Solution, or TAPS for short. This is a protocol that measures the taste, texture, and aging profiles of renowned global cheeses, to enable continuous taste and flavor improvements of Armored Fresh products. The combination of all three techniques allows us to produce tasty and high-quality cheese.

What prompted the decision to launch an oat-based line alongside your almond-based products?
Another mission of ours is to protect people’s health and the environment through food. Plant-based cheese tends not to be chosen due to its lack of taste, therefore we are working hard to change that by offering various flavors to have it enjoyed by more people. To do this, our cheese has to be tasty and have little to no allergy restrictions. For that reason, we have chosen to produce our cheese using an oat milk base, to provide an allergen-friendly option to consumers.

© Armored Fresh

Following the launch of your US e-commerce platform this year and expanding retail partnerships, what are your plans for further growth in the US and international markets? Are there specific regions or retail segments you are targeting next?
Seeing the success of our Oat Milk Slices that were released in the second half of 2023, we are planning to go on an “Oat Milk Tour” starting this month. Seeing various inquiries from different regions, this is going to be a large-scale tour campaign around the USA starting from New York and ending in California.

“Seeing the reactions we received, we plan to enter Europe in the future.”

We will have various menu demonstrations and on-site tastings, where people can get a taste of the new flavors that we have developed and have yet to show at any food shows or fairs. In addition, we saw how popular our Swiss and Dutch-style cheese are during the PBW Europe food show in the UK on November 23, despite Europe’s strict standards when it comes to plant-based foods. Seeing the reactions we received, we plan to enter Europe in the future.

Some of your products, like the shreds and spreads, are currently only available for food service. Are there any plans for a retail launch?
Since the shreds and spreads were developed targeting food service from the beginning, their sales targets were the same. So, I would say launching retail products is not a priority at this moment. In fact, we are working with several global companies on developing recipes for the products (shreds and spreads) to suit the services each company provides. Because the R&D center can research and develop recipes according to the company’s requirements, we are receiving many calls even though there has been no announcement that could be considered an official launch. As such, we are currently devoting all our efforts to research and development to meet B2B demand.

Based on your insights, how do you see consumer preferences in the plant-based cheese sector evolving?
Many consumers are discovering the benefits of veganism and plant-based diets, which is leading to increased discovery and trial of plant-based cheeses. However, forcing yourself to eat tasteless food is not okay. As we become aware of the problem, we continue to develop and release delicious plant-based cheese, and have been overwhelmed with positive feedback. There will be a situation where more and more consumers will choose the perfect product as it has already caught up with the taste and price of dairy cheese and will solve the problems of nutritional content and the environment. I have no doubt that Armored Fresh products will be chosen when that happens.

Armored Fresh Cheese Slices Made from Oat Milk
©Armored Fresh

What do you see as the biggest challenges and opportunities in the plant-based dairy alternative market today?
The vegan cheese market is still small, which is why the biggest challenge for us will be to expand the market so that many people will be familiar with it. Since dairy is a must-have for humans in the 21st century, switching out dairy cheese with non-dairy cheese can have a huge impact. We see that this change has to be pioneered by someone, and we decided to take on that role by working with other brands to expand the market share for the vegan category. As cheese goes along with most foods, partnering with other plant-based food brands is a great opportunity for the alternative dairy market.

Looking ahead, what new formulas or product innovations can we expect from Armored Fresh? Are there any new plant-based ingredients or technologies you are exploring?
We are preparing to launch Parmesan as a new product. Parmesan is the highest grade of animal cheese as it receives a DOP certification, which is only given to products that are produced in the designated country of origin. We are setting this highest grade of Parmesan as our target as we work hard to achieve a unique taste and aroma that would be equivalent to a DOP-certified Parmesan. Since Parmesan is the first shelf-stable product to be introduced by Armored Fresh, we expect it to reach a larger consumer audience.

Find out more at https://www.armoredfresh.com/

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