May 2021 Issue
By Mindy Hermann, MBA, RDN
Vol. 23, No. 5, P. 26
The category is taking the refrigerated case by storm. Here’s an overview of its sales success and factors driving the trend.
As dietitians, it’s hard to ignore the increasing popularity of plant-based milks. Once given a small allotment of shelf space next to powdered and canned milk products and marketed to consumers who had intolerances or allergies to dairy milk, plant-based milks now hold a prominent position in the refrigerated case.
Refrigerated plant-based milk accounts for nearly 90% of plant-based milk dollar sales—shelf-stable varieties represent the other 10%—and is purchased by an estimated 4 in 10 families, according to the Good Food Institute’s Plant-Based Retail Market Overview, a summary of retail sales data for plant-based food products in the United States.1 What’s more, plant-based milk manufacturers have gone from making niche health-related claims to taking strong positions on environmental sustainability. Marketing messages of some brands denounce cow’s milk, including the Swedish company Oatly, with its “Wow! Wow! No cow!” commercial that ran during this year’s Big Game, and Chilean company NotCo with its NotMilk cartons, depicting an image of a cow with a slash across it.
According to the Good Food Institute, the plant-based milk category brought in $2 billion in sales in 2019, representing 40% of the total plant-based food market. Growing 14% between 2017 and 2019, plant-based milk sales are projected to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 11% between 2020 and 2026, according to Global Market Insights.
Almond milk, with $1.3 billion in US sales in 2019, has replaced soymilk, with $202 million in sales in 2019, as the market leader. Among almond milks, Almond Breeze is the largest brand, followed by Silk and other Danone brands and Califia Farms, according to a Statista report. Oat milk holds the second position in plant-based milks and appeals to consumers for its creamy, rich texture and versatility in coffee drinks. SPINS data reported by Food Navigator lists 52-week oat milk sales at $213 million, up 351% from the previous year for refrigerated varieties and 106% for shelf-stable products. Among the various types of plant-based milks, oat, almond, coconut, and pea milks are growing, while products based on soy, rice, and nuts including walnuts, pecans, and cashews are losing market share.
Converting Ingredients to “Milk”
When it comes to producing these plant milks, manufacturers use sophisticated production methods aimed to replicate the taste, texture, and properties of dairy milk but with a different set of ingredients. The National Milk Producers Federation has long opposed the labeling of plant-based milk alternatives as “milk,” stating “the federal definition of ‘milk’ dictates that the product must have come from a lactating animal.” Nonetheless, plant-based products still can be labeled as milk, and many are; others have adopted the spelling “mylk” to differentiate themselves.
The production of plant-based milks involves several steps. The first disrupts the cellular structure of the selected plant base, for example, soybeans, almonds, or other nuts and legumes. This can be as simple and environmentally friendly as soaking the base ingredient in water to soften it and then grinding it. The base mixture can be heated to deactivate enzymes, centrifuged or filtered to remove unwanted material, and heat treated to destroy pathogens. Other ingredients, including fats, thickeners, and nutrients, may be added to help stabilize the milk and replicate the sensory features of dairy milk. The specific base ingredient or ingredients, fats and oils, sensory additives, and nutrients vary greatly among manufacturers and can serve to distinguish one brand from another.2
Like dairy milk, plant-based milks have varying fat content, depending on brand and base (eg, coconut milk tends to be higher in fat, almond milk lower in fat), and the array of options continues to widen. Some newer companies, such as NotCo, even offer plant-based milk in the traditional dairy varieties of whole and 2% reduced fat. In addition, over the past couple of years, several plant milk producers have introduced thicker “barista-style” products with a consistency that can turn into a foam for lattes and cappuccinos; these may be thickened with fat, oats, or other ingredients.
There are even nondairy powdered milk options; the company JOI produces powdered cashew and almond milk bases that can be reconstituted into milk or used in cooking, while powdered soymilk and coconut milk are available from several brands.
Marketing on Sustainability Over Nutrition
One of the reasons plant-based products have become increasingly popular is because of the sustainability messages driving them. Sustainability is top of mind for many consumers. In one study, sustainability was found to be more important to consumers who purchased both dairy and dairy alternatives than to those who purchased only dairy.3 The key sustainability attributes for shoppers were lower greenhouse gas emissions, water footprint and land use, few or no preservatives, animal happiness and welfare, and short, simple ingredient lists.
To that end, sustainability often anchors product positioning and marketing. The website for Ripple, a pea-based milk alternative, compares the brand’s reduced carbon footprint and lower water and plastic usage, due to its packaging materials, with those of dairy and almond milks. Sproud, another milk product made with pea protein, is described as having a 25% lower footprint than cow’s milk. A press release announcing the rollout of Silk’s line of oat milks stated, “We’re on a mission to restore rivers, putting back what we use, drop for drop, to grow the oats for our oat milk.” The website for Forager Project, a producer of milk alternatives made from cashews, oats, and coconut, highlights its alignment with the Organic Trade Association, Only Organic, Climate Collaborative, Plant Based Foods Association, and OSC2 Packaging Collaborative.
Quantifying Product Sustainability
These companies and others use what’s called life cycle assessment, or LCA, a methodology used for assessing the environmental impacts of various products, to compare plant-based milks vs dairy milk. It includes factors such as greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and use of energy, water, fossil fuels, and land related to a product’s life from production to consumption. Products differ in their use of inputs, so quantification and comparisons can be difficult. Generally, dairy milk is considered to have the greatest impact on the environment because of land use, greenhouse gas emissions, the relatively high energy requirements of raising dairy cows, and pollution.4
However, almond and rice milks need a great deal of water, soy and oat milks have high land use requirements, coconut cultivation can destroy wildlife habitats, and rice paddies can develop methane-producing bacteria that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, monoculture cultivation of any plant ingredient can negatively impact soil health. And a plant-based milk alternative that doesn’t sell quickly may use more energy and have a greater global warming potential than a dairy milk that has a faster turnover time.4
Trends toward upcycling and food waste reduction have created opportunities for development of new types of plant-based milks. Take Two Barley Milk uses upcycled barley from beer production. Hope & Sesame produces its beverage from upcycled sesame protein left over from sesame oil production. The company states on its website that sesame cultivation conserves water, protects bees because sesame is self-pollinating, and requires no pesticides.
The brand avocadomilk is produced from imperfect avocados that can’t be sold at retail. The company pays a premium to growers because “ugly” avocados usually command low prices. On its website, the company says it takes additional sustainability measures, including irrigating with only rainwater, producing bottles from recycled plastic, using 100% vegetable inks for all labeling, and offsetting carbon emissions by planting new trees each year.
Ingredients Matter More Than Nutrition
In addition to prioritizing sustainability, plant-based milk manufacturers often emphasize lifestyle and personal choice factors (eg, vegan, keto, organic, non-GMO, gluten-free) rather than nutrition to appeal to consumers. In the global Innova Alternative Dairy Technologies Survey 2020, consumers named price and taste over nutrition as top factors influencing them to buy dairy alternatives. The Innova Consumer Survey 2019 found that the presence of active and functional ingredients highly influenced purchasing decisions.
Products continue to differentiate themselves with new base ingredients and additives. Nearly every common and less common nut and seed is featured in at least one product. Some milks combine a “hero ingredient” such as banana with an oat base. Turmeric, matcha, adaptogens, mushrooms with functional properties, and ingredients positioned to energize, calm, and/or boost immunity are becoming more common in dairy alternatives. There are also next-generation nondairy products such as canned and bottled lattes and other coffee drinks, many made with an oat milk base.
The nutrient profiles of most plant-based milks don’t match dairy milk, particularly in products with the shortest ingredient lists and those consisting of only one or two ingredients plus water. A 2016 study using National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data to compare the nutrition impact of plant vs dairy diet scenarios found that a higher percentage of people on a plant-based diet fell short of the daily recommendations for protein, calcium, and vitamins A and D.5
Fortified soymilk is the only nondairy alternative recommended in the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans because it comes closest to matching the nutrition profile and nutrient density of cow’s milk. Some nondairy products appear to be formulated to replicate or exceed important dairy milk nutrients, namely protein, calcium, vitamins A and D, and potassium. The company Ripple promotes its Ripple Original as having higher protein content than nut milk and higher calcium and vitamin D content than dairy milk. Several brands add vitamin B12 to serve as a source for vegans. Because popular bases such as oat and almond are low in protein, oat milk and almond milk tend to fall short of the protein in cow’s milk unless they’re fortified with pea or another protein.
Products also may contain nutrients and ingredients not found in dairy milk, such as fiber, medium-chain triglyceride oil for followers of the ketogenic diet, and functional ingredients, and may undergo “clean” processing. The brand Malk, for example, promotes its almond, pecan, and cashew milks as cold pressed.
Best Choices for Clients
When helping clients choose plant-based milks, suggest they read the ingredient label and consider why they’re choosing it, says Kim Kirchherr, MS, RD, LDN, FAND, ACSM-CPT, a Chicago-area consultant to food retailers and food and ingredient manufacturers who has worked with several dairy trade organizations, including the National Dairy Council. “Beverage choices may not offer a comparable nutrition package to dairy milk, so the key nutrients in dairy, including protein, calcium, potassium, choline, and vitamins A, D, and B12, need to be gained elsewhere in the diet.”
“I look for plant-based dairy alternatives that have little to no added sugars, stabilizers, and gums, artificial flavors, synthetic preservatives, and synthetic fats,” says Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN, owner of Brooklyn, New York–based Maya Feller Nutrition and author of The Southern Comfort Food Diabetes Cookbook. “I often choose products with a shorter ingredient list. In fact, one of my favorite products has five ingredients. Sometimes, I’ll also choose ones that have been fortified with omega-3 fatty acids or protein.”
Cost and nutrient density also factor into decision-making. “With food budgets being tighter now than ever before, it’s important to educate clients on the cost per serving variances among the different plant-based milks on the market,” says San Diego–based Elizabeth Shaw, MS, RDN, CLT, CPT, owner of Shaw Simple Swaps, where she specializes in nutrition communications and consulting work, and author of Fertility Foods Cookbook. “Trendy options with wonderful marketing and beautiful package designs often are twice the price of some of the generic, store-brand names and fail to provide more nutritional benefit,” she says, adding that RDs need to counsel clients on what to look for regarding ingredients and nutritional value so they can meet their dietary needs and find products that fit their budgets.
“When working with patients in my private practice, I help them select products for their individual health considerations,” Feller says. “We might focus on added sugars, sodium, or gums and other ingredients that might affect a sensitive stomach. At the end of the day, it’s really about personal taste. I suggest sampling a number of alternatives based on your individual needs and choosing the one that has the best flavor and texture profile,” she continues. “But keep in mind that plant-based milks are not great replacements for dairy. For most of my clients, they serve a different purpose, and some clients may need supplements to make up nutrition shortfalls.”
— Mindy Hermann, MBA, RDN, is a metro New York–based food and nutrition communications consultant. She writes market research reports for Innova Market Insights, in Arnhem, Netherlands.
1. Plant-based retail market overview. Good Food Institute website. https://www.gfi.org/marketresearch
2. McClements DJ, Newman E, McClements IF. Plant-based milks: a review of the science underpinning their design, fabrication, and performance. Compr Rev Food Sci Food Saf. 2019;18(6):2047-2067.
3. Schiano AN, Harwood WS, Gerard PD, Drake MA. Consumer perception of the sustainability of dairy products and plant-based dairy alternatives. J Dairy Sci. 2020;103(12):11228-11243.
4. Marinova D, Bogueva D. Which ‘milk’ is best for the environment? We compared dairy, nut, soy, hemp and grain milks. The Conversation website. https://theconversation.com/which-milk-is-best-for-the-environment-we-compared-dairy-nut-soy-hemp-and-grain-milks-147660. Published October 13, 2020.
5. Cifelli CJ, Houchins JA, Demmer E, Fulgoni VL. Increasing plant based foods or dairy foods differentially affects nutrient intakes: dietary scenarios using NHANES 2007–2010. Nutrients. 2016; 8(7):422.