Plant-based milk has been around for centuries. However, it’s only until recently that it gained popularity in the United States. One of the first major brands to launch in the U.S. was Silk soy milk in 1996. Early on, the alternative dairy milk market was made mostly of almond, oat, and soy milk, and predominantly consumed by people with dietary restrictions that prevented them from drinking dairy milk.
But today, the reasons consumers drink plant-based milk are as varied as the selection available to them. Many factors have contributed to the rise in the plant-based milk market. Vegan and flexitarian diets have become mainstream; one study by Ipsos Retail Performance suggests that the popularity of plant-based diets has increased by 3000% in the last 15 years. Concerns about the environmental effects of food production on animals as well as concerns about animal welfare have contributed as well. Whatever a consumer’s reason for choosing plant-based milk, it’s clear the category is here to stay: the U.S. plant-based milk market is now worth over $3 billion.
The Seemingly Endless Plant-Based Milk Market Options
There are endless choices when it comes to dairy alternatives, each with its own unique taste and benefits. Oatly made a splash with its U.S. debut of oat milk in 2017 and has seen explosive growth. Some use lesser-known types of plant-based milk, like the Elmhurst line of nut milk that includes walnut, hazelnut, and cashew. Other “new kids” on the alternative-milk block are chia, chickpea, quinoa, and hemp milk.
The Importance of Nutrition & Taste in Dairy Milk Alternatives
But it wasn’t just enough to find a dairy alternative. Consumers wanted more from their plant-based milk and realized it wasn’t delivering the same nutritional benefits as dairy milk, particularly in terms of protein content. In addition, none of the products on the market tasted like dairy milk, a taste they’d become accustomed to.
The industry responded, with another round of innovative products addressing these issues. The lack of protein was addressed largely through the addition of pea protein. Recent launches from Danone include Silk Nextmilk and So Delicious Wondermilk. Both products have been designed to mimic the taste and texture of dairy milk while delivering comparable protein levels as well. How do they do it? Not with just one plant source, but a mixture of plant materials including coconut, oat, and even cabbage juice.
What’s Next for the Plant-Based Milk Market?
What can we expect next? What will the next generation of plant-based milk bring? We will absolutely continue to see new plant-based milk alternatives hit the market. While products like So Delicious aim to recreate the taste and texture of traditional dairy milk, it still lacks much of the protein functionality that makes dairy milk so unique and versatile in other products such as yogurt and cheese production. Enter Perfect Day: a company using fermentation technology to produce whey and casein proteins without cows. Their current product line includes ice cream as well as powdered whey protein. I’m sure we will see ready-to-drink products in the future as well.
Potato Milk: The Latest Plant-Based Milk
One plant-based ingredient to hit my radar is potato. Potatoes have a great reputation for sustainability, and the protein quality is very near that of dairy protein. The functionality of this protein is unique and could deliver very specific attributes and benefits where other plant-based dairy milk have missed the mark.
I think we will continue to see blends of ingredients used to address the functionality of milk. For instance, creating latte art with plant-based proteins, without also using unfriendly, chemical-sounding ingredients has posed a challenge. The solubility of some of the newer proteins is much less than that of traditional dairy.
As we continue to investigate plant proteins, we will likely see very specific uses for products as our technology and taste for plant-based milk continues to grow.
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