18 August 2020, 09:38 AM
  • 22nd August heralds the fourth World Plant Milk Day (WPMD). With UK sales up 28.3% last year, more product choice and innovation than ever and a correspondingly expanding consumer base, the category has much to celebrate
The rise and rise of plant-based milks

Although still led by the big four – oats (with a whopping 30% market share), almond, coconut and soya - the plant-based milk sector has mushroomed (aptly) into a huge and exciting hub for innovation. Alt-milks are now made with nuts, grains, rice, hemp, legumes, bananas, even tubers; with endless further variables in plant combination, flavoured, barista, activated, sweetened and unsweetened varieties, amounting 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.”

The latest arrival, launched in May by Bright Barley, is the UK’s first range of alternative milk drinks made from barley. “It is certainly a busy sector,” says founder Jiali Jiang, “but we had no concerns about entering it. Demand for plant-based milks 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 category, however, 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, were one of the first to tap into and encourage the conscience consumer. Who can forget their 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.”

World Plant Milk Day is about just that: encouraging people to make the switch, 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-free 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 $21billion 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 $21billion 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.”

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