For some, a cup of coffee wouldn’t be complete without a splash of milk. It changes coffee’s mouthfeel and softens its bitterness. For decades, milk has been used to create some of the most popular coffee beverages, from flat whites and cappuccinos to macchiatos and lattes.
However, growing concerns over the environmental and ethical impact of dairy production have led many to seek out alternatives in recent years. This has led to an astronomic rise in the popularity of plant-based milks, including soy, almond, oat, and coconut.
Many expect to see tremendous growth in the market, meaning one thing: people are talking about what the future holds for the plant milk sector.
To answer this question and look at why plant milks are so popular, I spoke with two experts. Read on to find out what they said.
You may also like our guide on choosing a non-dairy milk for specialty coffee.
A brief history of plant milk
While plant milks are a relatively new addition to the coffee shop menu, they have been around for hundreds of years.
One of the earliest recorded examples is almond milk, which has actually been mentioned in medieval cookbooks found across Europe. Many believe it became popular after the publication of a Christian treatise that forbade dairy consumption on certain days of the week.
This prompted a search for dairy-free alternatives, leading to the discovery of various nut milks, including almond, pistachio, and hazelnut.
Historically, almond milk was made by soaking ground almonds in water and straining through a cloth. However, because of the cost of foreign imports, it was an ingredient enjoyed predominantly by the wealthy, promoted as a nutritious and safe alternative to cow’s milk.
Beyond Europe, we can trace the early origins of soy milk back to 14th-century China. In particular, a tofu broth, known as doufujiang, is even believed to have been an early predecessor. However, it wasn’t until much later that it appeared outside of China, spreading to nearby Vietnam and Japan by the late 1700s.
Soy milk was first commercially produced over 100 years later in 1917. By the 1980s, it was available across the US, Europe, Asia, and Australia. US sales peaked at US $1.2 billion in 2008, before a steep decline caused by rumours about soy milk’s impact on human health and the environment.
Since the late 2000s, global almond milk sales have grown exponentially. Estimates put the current global market value at more than US $6 billion, and it is expected to double by 2025.
Beyond almond and soy milk, another third early plant milk can be traced back hundreds of years: coconut milk. Coconut milk has been used in Southeast Asian, African, and Indian cooking for centuries.
Today, it is used in an increasingly varied number of ways, including as a dairy substitute in coffee shops. A rise in consumer demand for healthy ingredients has seen it grow in sales around the world, while its high mineral and vitamin content make it a good nutritional substitute.
Gen Z, Oatly, and the rise of barista formula milks
Despite a steady rise throughout the early 21st century, the plant milk sector has only experienced meteoric growth in the past few years.
Analysis by the Plant Based Foods Association found that sales of plant-based milks grew 5% between 2019 and 2020, altogether accounting for 14% of all milk sales in the US. And while cow’s milk remains dominant, its sales have largely stagnated, rising by just 0.1% during the same period.
Lauren Visagie is the UK Marketing Manager for Califia Farms, a plant-based beverage company headquartered in California. She tells me that it is the younger generations who are leading this charge towards plant milk.
“In general, Generation Z are buying less dairy and switching to plant-based foods,” Lauren tells me. “This is because young people are increasingly concerned about their health, ethics, and the environment.”
While there is no definitive answer, many publications use the year 1997 at the point at which Generation Z begins. This means that Generation Z, consumers are largely 24 or younger at the time of writing.
According to recent data from market research firm Mintel, one-third of 16 to 24 year olds in the UK drink plant milks. The same research states that the number of people buying cow’s milk in the same age group fell by 6% (from 79% to 73%) between 2018 and 2019.
Camilla Barnard is the co-founder and Marketing Director of Rude Health, a UK-based dairy-free drinks and cereals company.
“More than half of dairy-alternative shoppers buy into the category because of its environmentally friendly credentials,” she says. “The rise of the internet and social media has made this information much easier to find.”
Thanks to this surge in popularity, a number of plant milk companies have seen substantial growth. Today, perhaps one of the most well-known is Swedish brand Oatly.
Founded in 1994, Oatly witnessed a dramatic spike in sales after entering the US market in 2016. Since then, their oat milk range has become a staple in the coffee sector, and is popular among baristas and consumers alike.
Between 2017 and 2018, Oatly’s revenues increased by US $15 million. In the UK, demand has previously been so high that consumers have experienced countrywide shortages.
Furthermore, in February 2021, Oatly aired a 30-second advertisement at Super Bowl LV. Entertainment publication Variety estimates that the network hosting the Super Bowl, CBS, charges approximately US $5.5 million for this slot.
“The total oat drink category is valued at £90 million,” Lauren says. “Oat barista drinks now make up a third of all sales.”
Oatly’s rise in popularity has even paved the way for specialist barista plant milks. As plant milks don’t contain the same level of fat found in cow’s milk, these formulas often contain added stabilisers and fats to produce higher quality and more “workable” microfoam.
What are the challenges?
Despite this extraordinary growth in the plant milk sector, there have also been some challenges.
As plant milks have “boomed” relatively quickly, it has taken some time for the regulatory landscape to catch up. For instance, it wasn’t until 2017 that a European Court of Justice ruling decreed that EU companies producing plant-based products couldn’t use terms such as “milk”, “cheese”, or “cream” for marketing purposes.
This means that these phrases, typically associated with dairy products, couldn’t legally appear on the packaging of dairy alternatives. Instead, they reserved them solely for products derived from animals.
The EU stated that motives behind the ruling were to prevent confusion for consumers and to protect “the unique and natural blend of micro and macro nutrients of milk and dairy products [which] cannot be matched by any plant-based products”.
Lauren says that she thinks the ruling has a negative impact on those looking to purchase plant-based products.
“It might cause confusion among consumers looking to make informed decisions around plant-based replacements for dairy,” she says. “Terms such as ‘oat milk’ have become ingrained in modern culture.”
More recently, new rules that the European Parliament has voted to pass (referred to as Amendment 171) may prohibit plant-based companies from using similar packaging to dairy products, such as milk cartons and yoghurt pots. It would also restrict marketing materials from claiming plant milks were an “alternative to” dairy products.
“It presents practical challenges for the industry,” Lauren explains. “It has rebranding marketing implications for both brands, like Califia Farms, and retailers.”
Another significant challenge is a broader increase in concerns over the environmental impact of plant milk production. Despite the fact that plant milks are advertised as an eco-friendly alternative to dairy, research has shown that almond milk in particular requires high volumes of water to produce.
For just a single litre, almond milk production uses more than 370 litres of water, compared to just 28 and 48 for soy and oat respectively. Coupled with the fact that 80% of almonds are grown in drought-ridden California, this has led many to question its long-term sustainability.
Camilla tells me that brands like Rude Health are working hard to work around these concerns. “We only use Mediterranean almonds because they’re grown in bee-friendly, smaller yields where rain is plentiful,” she explains.
“The yields are lower, making the price a bit higher, but we think it’s well worth the extra cost.”
What does the future hold for plant-based milks?
Plant milk sales have grown year-on-year for a while, and there are ultimately no signs that this growth will slow down any time soon.
However, it’s important to note that confidence in the market is heavily linked to the coffee industry. A significant percentage of all plant milks are used by coffee shops.
But they seem to be popular in coffee shops all the same; in March 2019, Starbucks rolled out the introduction of Elmhurst’s oat milk across their US stores. The brand even claimed recently that an increase in requests for plant milk has been the most notable shift in consumption across their branches.
Geographical differentiation is also a big point for brands to consider. “The US is ahead of the UK when it comes to plant-based milks,” Lauren explains. “Some 60% of the population buys plant milks compared to 35.6% in the UK.
“We anticipate the high growth to continue, and [expect] more households in the UK to start buying plant-based products in the next five to ten years.”
And while plant milk consumption is also linked to the increasing number of vegans around the world, even consumers who don’t identify as vegan are purchasing dairy alternatives. Studies show that 90% of plant-based milk drinkers also consume dairy in some capacity.
Lauren says: “With the rise in the number of ‘flexitarians’ (those with a diet centred on plants who occasionally eat meat), we are also seeing more hybrid dairy and plant-based drinks emerge, as consumers look to reap the benefits of both categories.
“Brands are responding to this demand with increasingly innovative, functional, and great tasting products, with even more innovation predicted,” she adds.
Camilla, however, believes that it will be interest in the variety of flavours offered by plant milks will help drive the market further.
She says: “We predict that more people will continue to join the trend over the next five to ten years.
“We’re already seeing more awareness and education about what flavours to use for different occasions, whether it’s almond milk in lattes, coconut milk in smoothies, or cashew milk in tea.”
Growth in the plant-based milk market has been meteoric over the last few years. Despite legislative challenges and concerns about the environment, it seems like this won’t slow down any time soon.
Furthermore, with the popularity of plant milk inherently linked to the ever-growing specialty coffee sector, it seems like demand within the industry will only continue.
So, next time you visit a coffee shop and order a latte or a cappuccino, why not consider asking for plant milk? Even if you love dairy, you might find you enjoy the change.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on whether or not we need to reduce dairy consumption in the coffee sector.
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