The rise and rise of plant-based milks

21 July 2021, 10:13 AM
  • With UK sales of vegan milks up 28.3% in 2019, more product choice and innovation than ever and a correspondingly expanding consumer base the plant-based category has much to celebrate
The rise and rise of plant-based milks

Although still led by the big four – oat milk (with a whopping 30% market share), almond milk, coconut milk and soya milk - the non-dairy milk sector has mushroomed (aptly) into a huge and exciting hub for innovation. From rice milk to hemp milk to cashew milk, plant-based milk alternatives, or alt-milks, are now made with nuts, grains, legumes, bananas and even tubers; with endless further variables in plant combination, flavoured, barista, activated, sweetened and unsweetened varieties. It all amounts to a booming category that has been dubbed ‘white gold’.

“We currently have over 50 different types of plant-based milks.” says Alan Martin, director of Food For Thought Holdings Ltd, who have three health stores in Kew Village, Guildford and Kingston. “The depth and breadth of choice is fuelling the rise in sales, assisted by mainstream marketing (think Veganuary) and clever branding.

“Food For Thought has been around for 30 years,” he continues “and back in the day I recall little choice other than soya. In the past ten years, however, we have seen the market grow almost exponentially; with each year bringing a new clutch of plant-based milks.” One of the latest vegan milk arrivals is the UK’s first range of alternative milks made from barley, launched by Bright Barley. “It is certainly a busy sector,” says founder Jiali Jiang, “but we had no concerns about entering it. Demand for plant-based milk is such that there is room for continuing development. Every plant brings a different flavour, texture and health profile to a drink, so consumers increasingly have their go-to product and retailers need to respond with a broad offer.”

The unifying element of the plant-based beverage category, whether pea milk or flax milk, is sustainability. “Our decision to develop a barley milk was about the superior flavour and health claims of the grain,” continues Jiang, “but it was sealed by the discovery that organic barley could be sourced from UK farms. This matters to our customers. And to us.”

32% of UK households buy dairy-free milk

Swedish oat milk brand Oatly was one of the first to tap into and encourage the conscience consumer and the vegan diet. Who can forget its 2015 conversation-stopper campaign: “It’s Like Milk But Made For Humans”?

“The growth of this sector can be primarily put down to an increased awareness that consumers now have,” says Oatly UK General Manager, Ishen Paran. “An awareness that they can directly impact the health of the planet through the products they choose to buy.”

Launched back in 1994, Oatly has witnessed dramatic changes in the market. “Consumers were mainly purchasing alt-milks for dietary or health reasons, now they are also purchasing them in aid of sustainability,” says Parlan. “Until recently, this shift and change in shopping habits has been led by Millennials and Generation Z, but there is now demand in all age groups; and our target audience is anyone who wants to positively impact the planet by making a simple switch from dairy to oat. A massive 32% of households buy dairy-free milk now.” The environmental impact of milk is clearly driving consumers to plant-based milk substitutes.

World Plant Milk Day is about just that: encouraging people to make the switch to plant-based products, notably through a ‘7-Day Dairy-Free Challenge’. “The data is clear,” says Robbie Lockie, director and co-founder of Plant Based News and founder of World Plant Milk Day, “consuming milk that is made from plants is a kinder, healthier and more environmentally friendly option for all.

“We will continue to see more and more brands joining the market,” he predicts. “Large dairy companies are seeing the writing on the wall and responding to the consumer shift in taste and demand, because there is huge opportunity here.”

‘The future is dairy-free’

Many of the world’s biggest dairy businesses are indeed frantically expanding into dairy alternative products and acquisitions, all eager for a piece of the plant-based pie, of which the alt-milk slice alone will have an estimated global value of $21bn by 2024, according to the Good Food Institute.

The corporate invasion of a category that has been historically powered by the integrity and vision of independents must be galling. Collectively, the likes of Oatly, Rude Health, Rebel Kitchen, Minor Figures, Soulfresh and now Bright Barley have worked hard to develop new products and typically create brands with strong personalities, through which to convey their authentic message of change.

Not so, says Jiang of Bright Barley. ”As long as the consumer continues to be educated to the environmental and health impacts from dairy; and as long as practices are genuinely sustainable, the more the merrier. As the only brand focused on barley, perhaps I can say that more confidently than others, but ultimately we should all be working towards the same end.” Which leads us to the $21bn question: has dairy had its day? “This is the beginning of the end for dairy, yes”, says WPMD’s Robbie Lockie. “I truly believe that the future is dairy-free.”

This article was originally published in August 2020.

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