Plant milk in its many forms: Focus on sustainability and health aspects

different plant milk drinks in an overview
© DrinkStar GmbH / Princess and the Pea

Started in 2017 by ProVeg and Plant Based News, World Plant Milk Day is now celebrated annually on August 22. The goal is to highlight, to millions around the world, plant-based milk alternatives, and to illustrate their environmental and health benefits compared to traditional cow’s milk. This is an initiative that is hitting home because the popularity of plant milk as an alternative is growing.

Global cow’s milk consumption is at nearly 180 million tons

Cow’s milk sales continue to substantially outstrip those of plant-based milk alternatives. According to Statista, the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) has forecast global consumption of cow’s milk at around 178.66 million tons in 2019. According to Rabobank, the top 20 dairies generated sales of $209.5 billion in 2018. In total, the global cow’s milk industry, in which 2018 sales declined by $1.1 billion compared to the previous year, is said to be worth some $400 billion.

Plant milk – on a path to growth

Cow’s milk sales are no doubt way ahead of the plant milk industry. However, ProVeg estimates an annual 9.1 percent average global increase in plant milk sales volumes between 2019 and 2026 to $28.3 billion. “There has never been a better time to switch to plant-based products,” Sean Mackenney, campaign manager at ProVeg, believes – despite regulatory hurdles inhibiting the industry, to some extent. For example, the term “milk” is protected in the EU and plant milk producers have to market their milk alternatives as “drinks” (e.g. as “soy drink”). Also, while cow’s milk is frequently subject to a reduced sales tax rate, plant milk is typically taxed at the standard rate.

Nearly half of all consumers in the U.S. buy plant milk. Consumption of plant milk is also increasing in Germany. According to a new Gesellschaft für Konsumforschung (GfK) survey, 16 percent consume plant-based milk alternatives in this country. The global industry is estimated to be worth $16 billion.

Another step in the direction of a conscious and sustainable lifestyle

Why are consumers turning increasingly to plant milk? The answer to this question is complex. Certainly, on the one hand, because dairy cows frequently have to endure the effects of intensive ranching, which is not animal-friendly and causes high emissions of greenhouse gases. On the other hand, milk contains cholesterol and trans-fatty acids as well as growth hormones. Many consumers regard turning to plant-based milk alternatives as another step in the direction of a conscious and sustainable lifestyle.

Almond milk has an image problem

In 2008, the Californian almond industry launched a large-scale marketing campaign. Keen consumer interest in almond milk was generated as a result. In 2013, almond milk overtook soy milk and established itself as the most successful plant milk in the U.S. To this day, almond milk is still number one, and sales have also increased in the European market. Yet, almond milk is struggling with an image problem. A single almond requires some four liters of water to ripen. Therefore, in California, the place where 80 percent of the world’s almonds are harvested, 10 percent of the state’s entire water consumption is used for almonds. Furthermore, this cow’s milk alternative only contains some 2 to 10 percent almonds per liter of liquid, is frequently heavily sweetened and contains hardly any calcium, few proteins and virtually no minerals. Some manufacturers solve this problem – as is often standard practice with other plant-based milk alternatives – by using additives.

Oatly – an oat milk pioneer

Looking at the German market, almond milk was still the plant milk innovation leader in 2017. In 2018 it was overtaken by oat milk. Oat milk had already made its way into the U.S. market at an early stage, thanks in particular to the efforts of the Swedish brand Oatly.

Oatly started out in New York’s coffee shops and eventually expanded to cafés and grocery stores throughout the country. The Oatly brand, which is well represented in Europe, recently started focusing on the Chinese market. Generally speaking, oat milk provides plenty of fiber and proteins and is rich in iron and B vitamins.

Looking at the German market, almond milk was still the plant milk innovation leader in 2017. In 2018 it was overtaken by oat milk.
© Quelle: Oatly Germany GmbH

Innovative products like pea, hemp and lupin milk are making a breakthrough

Die Milch-Alternative aus Lupinen bietet eine hochwertige Eiweißquelle bei veganer Ernährung.
© Prolupin GmbH / Made with Luve

A very recent and interesting trend is the one towards pea milk. For example, start-up firm Ripple Foods is active in the U.S. with its Original Nutritious Pea Milk along with Bolthouse Farms and their Plant Protein Milk. German company, DrinkStar, is also offering Princess and the Pea, an innovative pea drink, which CEO Roland Bittermann describes as: “This plant milk is naturally lactose-, gluten- and allergen-free and therefore the ideal drink for consumers with food allergies or intolerances.” These drinks are enriched with calcium and rapeseed oil which provides omega-3 fatty acids. This plant drink also features additives.

There is also increasing interest in hemp milk. What’s important to know about hemp milk is that it is always produced from industrial hemp with no THC content, i.e. there are no intoxicants involved here. Hemp milk is becoming increasingly popular with health experts, because it contains a large quantity of proteins and omega-3 fatty acids and has a low fat content. According to Yumda Food & Drink Business Info, the global hemp milk market is forecast to reach a volume of around $454 million by 2024. In 2018, North America accounted for 50 percent of the global hemp milk market, followed by Europe.

Awareness of lupin milk is currently even less than that of hemp milk. As a protein-rich crop plant, lupin has long been at home in our climate, but to-date has scarcely been used as a purely plant-based food – specifically, as a local alternative to soy, rice, almond and coconut. For example, German producer Prolupin now produces lupin milk in a choice of three flavors – natural, vanilla and chocolate – under the Made with Luve brand, based on a method developed at the Fraunhofer IVV.

Appealing more to consumers by providing usage information

In the future, one can also assume that plant drinks will frequently be a source of inspiration. All of them aim to appeal in terms of sustainability and health aspects. A recent Mintel survey, which considered the consumption habits of UK consumers in relation to plant-based milk alternatives over a 3-month period to the end of February 2019, makes interesting reading. Almost a quarter of UK consumers used plant milk during this period. That figure increased to one third among 16- to 24-year-olds. This growth was accounted for by oat, coconut and almond products. In the context of this survey, the Mintel research also underlines the significance of ethics and the environment for the established milk industry. Therefore, in this segment, a quarter of consumers are interested in products that guarantee sustainable agriculture and roughly every seventh consumer wants to see on-package information about the number of days that the milk producer’s cows are permitted to be outdoors.

A key point from the survey’s results for plant milk producers is the interest in comprehensive information. 65 percent of consumers would welcome advice about using plant-based milk alternatives for cooking and baking purposes. Also, 24 percent of consumers, who have not yet bought plant milk, would be interested in such advice and tips. This indicates that targeted information could be used to persuade even more consumers to the benefits of plant-based milk alternatives.

Friederike Arndt

As a freelance trade journalist, Friederike Arndt is regarded as an expert in the area of beverages. She spent a long time writing for, inter alia, the trade magazines Getränkeindustrie (beverage industry) and Getränkefachgroßhandel (beverage wholesale trade). On the blog, she reports on the latest trends and innovations in the field of non-alcoholic beverages.