For some people, a cup of coffee wouldn’t be complete without a bit of milk. It changes the mouthfeel of coffee and softens its bitterness. For decades, milk has been used to create some of the most popular coffee drinks, from white coffee and cappuccinos to macchiatos and lattes.
However, growing concerns about dairy products’ environmental and ethical impacts have led many to seek alternatives in recent years. This has led to an astronomical increase in the popularity of plant-based milk, including soy, almond, oat and coconut.
Many expect to see tremendous growth in the market, which means that people are talking about the future of the plant-based dairy industry.
I spoke with two experts to answer this question and see why plant-based milk is so popular. Read on to find out what they had to say.
Summary of the history of plant milk
While plant-based milk is a relatively new addition to cafe menus, they’ve been around for hundreds of years.
One of the earliest recorded examples is almond milk, mentioned in medieval cookbooks found throughout Europe. Many believe it became popular after publishing a Christian treatise that forbade the consumption of milk on certain days of the week.
This prompted a search for dairy-free alternatives, which led to various nut milk, including almond, pistachio and hazelnuts.
Historically, almond milk was made by soaking ground almonds in water and straining it through a cloth. However, due to the cost of importing it from abroad, it is an ingredient favoured mainly by the wealthy, advertised as a nutritious and safe alternative to cow’s milk.
Outside of Europe, we can trace the original origins of soy milk to 14th century China. In particular, a tofu broth, known as doubanjiang, is even said to be its predecessor. However, it was not until much later that it appeared outside of China, spreading to Vietnam and nearby Japan in the late 1700s.
Soy milk was first commercially produced more than 100 years later, in 1917. By the 1980s, it was available throughout the United States, Europe, Asia, and Australia. US sales peaked at $1.2 billion in 2008 before plummeting due to rumours about the effects of soy milk on human health and the environment.
Since the late 2000s, global sales of almond milk have grown exponentially. Estimates suggest that the current global market value is over US$6 billion and is expected to double by 2025.
In addition to almond and soy milk, third plant-based milk can be traced back hundreds of years: coconut milk. Coconut milk has been used in cooking in Southeast Asia, Africa and India for centuries.
Today, it is used in an increasingly diverse variety of ways, including as a milk substitute in coffee shops. Increasing consumer demand for healthy ingredients has helped boost sales worldwide, while its high mineral and vitamin content makes it an excellent nutritional substitute.
Generation Z, OATLY, and the Rise of BARISTA Formula Milk
Despite steady growth throughout the early 21st century, the plant-based dairy industry has only experienced a phenomenal growth rate in the past few years.
Analysis by the Plant-Based Foods Association found that plant-based milk sales grew 5% from 2019 to 2020, representing 14% of all milk sales in the US. And while cow’s milk still dominates, its sales have stagnated mainly, growing only 0.1% in the same period.
Lauren Visagie is the UK Marketing Manager for Califia Farms, a plant-based beverage company with headquarters in California. She told me that the younger generations are leading this responsibility for plant-based milk.
“Overall, Generation Z is buying less dairy and switching to plant-based foods,” Lauren told me. “This is because young people are increasingly concerned about their health, ethics and the environment.”
While there is no definite answer, many publications use the year 1997 when Generation Z began. This means Generation Z; most consumers are 24 years or younger at writing.
According to recent data from market research firm Mintel, one in three young adults aged 16 to 24 in the UK drink plant-based milk. The same study also found that the number of people buying cow’s milk in the same age group decreased by 6% (from 79% to 73%) between 2018 and 2019.
Camilla Barnard is the Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Rude Health, a UK-based dairy-free cereal and beverage company.
“More than half of dairy substitute shoppers buy into this category because of its eco-friendly credentials,” she said. “The rise of the internet and social media has made this information much easier to find.”
Thanks to this surge in popularity, several plant-based dairy companies have grown significantly. Today, perhaps one of the best-known brands in the Swedish brand OFast.
Founded in 1994, Oddly saw a spike in sales after entering the US market in 2016. Since then, their oat milk product line has been a staple. Power in the coffee sector is popular with baristas and consumers alike.
From 2017 to 2018, OFast’s revenue increased by US$15 million. In the UK, demand was previously so high that consumers have experienced nationwide shortages.
Furthermore, in February 2021, OFast aired a 30-second commercial at Super Bowl LV. Entertainment publication Variety estimates that the Super Bowl host network, CBS, charges about $5.5 million for the slot.
Lauren said: “The total portfolio of oat drinks is worth £90 million. “Beverages from the oat barista now make up a third of all sales.”
Oedly’s rise in popularity even paved the way for professional brewery milkshakes. Since plant-based milk doesn’t contain the same levels of fat found in cow’s milk, these formulas often contain added stabilizers and petroleum to produce higher quality and more “workable” microfoam.
What are the challenges?
Despite such a surge in the plant-based dairy industry, there are also some challenges.
Since plant-based milk has “exploded” relatively quickly, it took a while for the regulator to catch up. For example, it was not until 2017 that a ruling by the European Court of Justice ruled that EU companies producing plant-based products could not use terms such as “milk”, “cheese”.” or “ice cream” for marketing purposes.
This means that these phrases, often associated with dairy products, cannot legally appear on the packaging of milk substitutes. Instead, they are dedicated solely to products of animal origin.
The EU stated that the motive behind the ruling was to prevent confusion for consumers and protect the “unique and natural blend of micro-and macro-nutrients of milk and dairy products”. Milk, which no other plant-based product can match.
Lauren says she thinks the ruling hurts people looking to buy plant-based products.
“It can confuse consumers looking to make informed decisions about plant-based milk substitutes for dairy,” she said. “Terms like ‘oat milk’ have become ingrained in modern culture.”
More recently, new rules the European Parliament voted to pass (called the 171 Amendment) could ban plant-based companies from using similar packaging for dairy products, such as dairy products. Such as milk cartons and yoghurt bottles. It will also limit marketing materials that claim plant-based milk is a “substitute for” dairy products.
“It presents real challenges to the industry,” explains Lauren. “It makes rebranding marketing sense for both brands, like Califia Farms and retailers.”
Another significant challenge is growing concern about the environmental impact of plant-based milk production. Even though plant-based milk is touted as an eco-friendly alternative to milk, research has shown that almond milk requires large amounts of water to produce.
For just one litre, almond milk production uses more than 370 litres of water, compared with just 28 and 48 for soybeans and oats, respectively. Coupled with 80% of almonds being grown in arid California, many question its long-term sustainability.
Camilla told me that brands like Rude Health are working hard to address these concerns. “We only use Mediterranean almonds because they are grown in bee-friendly locations, yielding smaller yields in areas with a lot of rain,” she explains.
“The output is lower, which makes the price a bit higher, but we think it is worth the additional cost.”
What’s the future for plant milk?
Plant-based milk sales have been growing year-over-year for some time, and ultimately there’s no sign that this growth rate will slow down anytime soon.
However, it is essential to note that market confidence has a lot to do with the coffee industry. A significant proportion of all plant-based milk is used by coffee shops.
But they seem to be equally common in cafes; In March 2019, Starbucks introduced Elmhurst’s oat milk across their stores in the United States. The brand even stated recently that the increase in demand for plant-based dairy was the most noticeable change in consumption at their branches.
The geographical difference is also a big point that brands need to consider. Lauren explains: “The US is ahead of the UK regarding plant-based milk. “About 60 per cent of the population buys plant-based milk compared to 35.6% in the UK.
“We anticipate high growth to continue and expect more UK households to start buying plant-based products over the next five to 10 years.”
And while the consumption of plant-based milk is also linked to the growing number of vegans globally, even consumers who do not identify as vegetarians are buying dairy alternatives. Studies show that 90% of plant-based milk drinkers also consume milk to some degree.
“With an increase in the number of ‘flexible people’ (those with a plant-focused diet who occasionally eat meat), we’re also seeing more hybrid drinks,” says Lauren. The difference between milk and plants occurs when consumers expect to get the benefits of both.
“Brands are responding to this demand with increasingly innovative products that function and taste great, in anticipation of more innovation,” she adds.
However, Camilla believes that interest in the variety of plant-based milk will help drive the market further.
“We predict that more people will continue to join this trend over the next five to 10 years,” she said.
“We’ve noticed more awareness and education about which flavours to use for different occasions, whether it’s almond milk in a latte, coconut milk in a smoothie or cashew milk in a tea.”
Over the past few years, the market for plant-based milk has increased. Despite legislative challenges and environmental concerns, it doesn’t look like this will slow down anytime soon.
Furthermore, with the popularity of plant-based milk inherent in the speciality coffee industry growing, it seems likely that demand in the industry will only continue.
So the next time you go to a coffee shop and order a latte or cappuccino, why not consider asking for plant-based milk? Even if you love milk, you may find you enjoy the change.