What’s in store for the vegan milk trend?

22 September 2021, 07:30 AM
  • The future looks bright for plant-based milks, but traditional products still have a firm hold on the market
What’s in store for the vegan milk trend?

The alternative milk market continues to grow at a rapid pace as more consumers swap cow’s milk for vegan replacements. A third of Brits now use plant-based milk, according to research by Mintel, up from a quarter in 2020. This has caused total spending on plant-based milk to reach £394m in 2020, growing 32% from the previous year.

The alt-milk trend is especially prevalent in younger generations: almost 44% of Brits aged 25-44 are plant-based milk users.

Sustainable selling points

Covid, as well as a mission to improve their own carbon footprints, has inspired more Brits to use alternative, non-dairy substitutes. Almost a quarter (23%) of adults say that plant-based milk is better for them than cow’s milk, while half (50%) of adults agree people’s milk choices make a difference to the environment, Mintel found. Indeed, one 2018 study found that dairy is around three times more greenhouse gas emission-intensive than plant-based milks.

A quarter (26%) of adults said the Covid-19 outbreak has made vegan and plant-based food and drink more appealing to them, rising to 38% of under-35s. “The plant-based trend continues to gain momentum in the UK, fuelled by environmental and health considerations. Almost a third of adults drink plant-based milk, evidence of its firmly mainstream status and appeal far beyond the vegan or vegetarian populations,” explains Amy Price, senior food and drink analyst at Mintel.

Oat is cream of the crop

The most popular variety of plant-based milk today is oat milk, which overtook almond milk as usage almost doubled between 2019 and 2020. British consumers spent a whopping £146m on oat milk last year, up from £74m in 2019. Meanwhile, shoppers spent £105m on almond milk in 2020, up from £96m in 2019. “Oat milk was the main beneficiary of the accelerated demand in plant-based milk during 2020, overtaking almond milk as the top-selling plant-based milk,” Amy said. 

This growing popularity has spurred brands to improve their products. “Oat milk’s previous robust growth has attracted a lot of innovation to the segment including barista-style varieties. The rapid sales growth of plant-based milk has brought about new product development from established players and new entrants alike,” Amy said.

The future for traditional dairy products


While standard cow’s milk usage drops to 84% among 16–24-year-olds, it remains a firm favourite with older generations. Of those aged 65+, 96% use cow’s milk. And despite sales of alt-milks growing, dairy still has the vast majority of the market share, with sales reaching £3.2bn in 2020.

But the competition is heating up, Amy said. “While almost ninety percent of Brits use cow’s milk, usage continues to be lower amongst younger Brits than older age groups, as it faces intense competition from plant-based varieties. If they retain their plant-based milk habit as they age, this stands to drive usage across the population upwards over time, fuelling long-term growth for the plant-based milk category.”

Despite this, demand for traditional products that provide comfort and nostalgia is growing retailers shouldn’t count classic, speciality dairy products out. For instance, Mintel found that usage of clotted cream almost doubled from 6% in 2020 to 11% in 2021, while usage of cream rose from around half of the population in 2020 to almost one in seven in 2021 (68%). These categories benefited from Brits spending more time in their homes cooking and baking, and enjoying treats like afternoon teas.

With the dairy industry also working to improve its sustainability, there is certainly space on the shelves for both traditional and alternative milks today.

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