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What’s Up With Non-Dairy Milk?

Plant-based milks are enjoying a rise in prominence. Gone are the days when non-dairy milk options were only found in specialty food stores and consumed mostly by vegan drinkers. Growing ethical concerns, increased eco-consciousness and greater access to information regarding the health benefits of plant-based diets have led to an explosion of the non-dairy milk market in the past 10 years. In the US, plant milk sales totaled a whopping $2.5 billion at the end of 2020, comprising 35 percent of the larger plant-based foods sector. And 71 percent of adults said they tried at least one plant-based product in 2021, according to Dataessential.

The global pandemic further accelerated this trend, as irregular shopping patterns prompted consumers to purchase shelf-stable items like lactose-free beverages. “The shelves were empty, and people were stocking up because they knew they were going to be at home, and it was an opportunity if they couldn’t get their regular milk product,” Denise Purcell, vice president of content and education at Specialty Foods Association, told The New York Times. “It was sort of like a gateway. They would try it, and it would lead them to try other products.” Options abound when it comes to non-dairy milks, with varieties made from vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and grains. In the US, the six most popular options currently include almond, oat, soy, coconut, pea and rice milks—though a new contender may soon give them a run for their money. Here’s what else you need to know.

The Great Potato Bounty
Potato milk is the newest market entrant making a splash., The only brand currently on shelves is produced by a Swedish company called DUG, following a breakthrough by scientists at Sweden’s Lund University that led to the development of a “patented emulsion of potatoes and rapeseed oil” that’s reportedly high in protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Potato milk also boasts as many antioxidants as blackberries and blueberries, and its sustainable harvesting method has scored points with younger, environmentally concerned consumers. DUG notes that their harvesting process creates 75 percent less carbon emissions than dairy milk and requires 56 times less water to grow than almond trees. Though currently sold only in Sweden, China and the UK, multiple coffee shops and grocery stores in those three countries now carry DUG. In fact, in its recently released 2022 Food and Drink report, British supermarket chain Waitrose predicted that potato milk will be the biggest non-dairy milk trend this year: “Low in sugar and saturated fat, it’s set to dominate coffee shop menus in the coming months.”

UK sales of plant-based milk have been booming, now bringing in close to 400 million pounds per year. Consumption rates shot up higher during the first months of Covid-19 lockdowns, when pandemic fears prompted many to make healthier lifestyle choices that often meant switching to plant-based diets. According to England’s Food Standards Agency, roughly 720,000 people in the UK now identify as vegan while 25 percent of people between 21 to 30 years old said they found vegan diets more tempting in 2020. An April 2021 Mintel study further revealed that 44 percent of UK millennials aged 25 to 44 now consume plant-based milk. DUG has plans for future expansion into other countries, including the United States. When it comes to possible marketing tactics, they have a good model for inspiration in the now-famous oat milk brand Oatly, which shares the same home of Malmö, Sweden, a hotbed of entrepreneurs.

Oat-standing Achievements
The Oatly brand launched in 1994, which might come as a surprise to many American consumers who never heard of oat milk prior to 2016, when it first hit US markets via New York City’s Intelligentsia Coffee shops. That move and much of Oatly’s subsequent growth can be attributed to Toni Petersson, who took the helm as CEO in 2014 and revamped the company, turning it into an IPO now worth $1.4 billion. From the start, unusual marketing tactics played a role in this effort. Case in point: A controversial 2018 campaign that ran in the UK with the tagline “It’s like milk, but made for humans” and garnered a lawsuit for the brand from Sweden’s dairy industry. Creative director Michael Lee’s mission has long been to adopt a bold tone meant to jar consumers and leave a lasting impact. “It’s always been part of our DNA to be fearless,” said Lee. “If you have a mission to change the food system, you can’t do that without stepping on some people’s toes and being provocative.”

Recent ad endeavors toe the same line, delivering everything from a YouTube series starring two puppets who are struggling to make the switch to a plant-based lifestyle to last year’s 30-second Super Bowl ad that found Petersson singing alone at a keyboard in the middle of a field of grain. The spot garnered mixed responses but being controversial is clearly working for the brand. Oatly’s revenue for the first half of 2021 was up over 59 percent, to $286 million. “We are the brand that does provocative stuff,” said Lee. “We are the brand that isn’t afraid to take the issues on and then take the heat for it. And as soon as we stop doing that, we just become wallpaper.”

All About Almond
While oat milk is currently the fastest-growing non-dairy milk alternative in the US, almond still holds the title as most-popular plant-based beverage, claiming two-thirds of the market share. Its history is far-reaching, having been a staple of North African and Middle Eastern diets for nearly 1,000 years. The trajectory of almond milk’s rise in popularity in Europe mirrors that of soy milk in China, and by the 1970s and 1980s both could be found in niche health food stores of Western nations. Though almonds are generally grown in areas affected by lack of water, almond milk also has the lowest greenhouse gas emissions of any alternative-milk offering, due to the amount of carbon dioxide stored by these trees over time. All this has led to an abundance of well-known almond milk brands, including Blue Diamond, SO Delicious, Natura, Simply Almond, Pacific Foods and Silk, among others.

There’s no doubt that plant-based foods are soaring in popularity. This is a “really hot topic at the moment…because [it’s] one of the main trends in the food industry at the moment for sustainability, ethical and health reasons,” according to David Julian McClements, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The sector grew two times faster than overall food sales in 2020, and alternative milks account for a large slice of that pie. For marketers looking to get in on the non-dairy milk market, the timing has never been better.