THE UNSTOPPABLE RISE OF THE MYLK
Fortunately, when it comes to milk, in 2019 there is no shortage of alternatives. Visit your local supermarket and you will find a refrigerated aisle overflowing with choice: almond milk, hazelnut milk, peanut, tiger nut, walnut, cashew, as well as coconut, hemp, spelt, quinoa, pea, and many more. Metro stations from Ney York City to London are filled with ads for new plant mylks (EU law prevents dairy alternatives from using the word milk if it isn’t produced by a lactating mammal) and cookbooks dedicate entire chapters to blending and straining your own.
In 1975, the average American consumed around 130 litres of milk per year; in 2017, it was just 66 litres. In the US, milk sales have fallen 15% since 2012. Yet, the dairy industry still is a highly regulated behemoth, worth more than USD 400 billion, produced by a global herd of more than 274 million cows. It seems unthinkable now, but as recently as 2008, alternatives to cow’s milk largely meant soya (Alpro in Europe, Silk in the US). It was for people who were lactose intolerant or had an allergy to milk. Today, over 1 in 10 of Pret a Manger’s hot drinks in the UK are ordered with dairy alternative milks, such as organic soya milk or organic rice-coconut milk. According to research firm Mintel, UK plant milk sales have grown by 30% since 2015 driven by a surge in plant-based diets. In the US, nearly half of all shoppers now add a plant mylk to their baskets. Globally, the industry is estimated to be worth USD 16 billion.
Milk’s reputation as a healthy food is under threat from anxieties about bovine antibiotics, animal cruelty and the industry’s environmental impact, as well as increased diagnosis of lactose intolerance. Teenagers now consider cow’s milk less healthy than plant milk alternatives, a development the former chairman of Dairy UK, David Dobbin, called “a demographic time bomb”. “Consumers are really not sure about the dairy industry. They are not convinced that these products are good for them anymore,” says Caroline Roux, a dairy analyst at Mintel.
We are all born milk drinkers. Babies’ guts produce the enzyme lactase, which breaks down lactose, the sugar in breastmilk and cow’s milk, into the simpler sugars glucose and galactose. But for the majority of humans, production of the enzyme lactase decrease as we grow older. “From a human perspective – no, to go further than that, from a mammalian perspective – the norm is to be able to tolerate your mother’s breast milk, and then as you get past infancy, to stop producing lactase and become lactose intolerant,” said Adam Fox, a consultant paediatric allergist at Guy’s and St Thomas’s hospitals, and one of the UK’s leading food allergy experts. In Western countries the majority of adults can drink milk without suffering any ill effects, but worldwide, more than two-thirds of all adults are considered lactose intolerant. For lactose-intolerant people, a glass of milk can induce bloating, stomach pains and diarrhoea.
Plant mylks received a boost from their association with clean eating, which is heavily supported by groups of wellness bloggers and social influencers, arguing for the elimination of any foods deemed overly processed, allergenic, or otherwise “unnatural”, including gluten, caffeine, meat and dairy. The clean eaters did what years of vegan campaigning never could achieve. A steady supply of attractive Instagram feeds with appetizing tasty dishes implying that a vegan diet is not solely about health, but means you are living your best life and striving for your fullest potential.
Soya’s real break came in the late 90s, when the owners of WhiteWave at that time – the dairy giant Dean Foods – had leveraged its industry clout to get its plant-based mylk Silk positioned alongside milk in the refrigerated section. WhiteWave’s new refrigerated soya drink was a sensation. Similar, Blue Diamond Growers, a large cooperative of almond farmers in California, sensed an opportunity. Its mylk, Almond Breeze, had long lagged behind Silk. Supermarkets continuously maintain a tight grip on shelf space, charging high fees to stock a new product and high-traffic displays like the refrigerated case are fiercely competitive. In 2008, Blue Diamond decided to follow a similar path as WhiteWhave, and established a partnership with the second largest dairy producer in the country, to gain entry to the competitive shelf space. While in the United States, Silk and Almond Breeze gained popularity, in Europe Alpro started to conquer the milk aisle and become people’s favorite milk alternative. In June 2009, Alpro sold for an estimated USD 455 million to Dean Foods, which in June 2013 spun-off WhiteWave, the Dean Foods subsidiary that managed Alpro, as an independent company listing on the New York Stock Exchange. Three years later, in July 2016, it was announced that the French company Danone would purchase WhiteWave Foods for USD 10.4 billion.
In today’s crowded market, newcomers require something special to stand out. An Australian milk called Nutty Bruce boasts of “activated almonds”, which means the almonds are soaked in water for slightly longer than usual. A San Francisco startup called Ripple claims to have developed a hi-tech process to isolate the protein in yellow peas without any of the associated flavours or colourings. Similar, the New York-based producer Elmhurst, developed an innovative method to break down nuts, while keeping the proteins intact. Elmhurst was in the dairy industry for 90 years, but in 2016, its owners sold off the cattle and switched to plant milk. In Germany, Berlin-based Blue Farm focusses on sustainability offering zero waste and low impact nut drinks. Tamara Arbib, the founder of London-based Rebel Kitchen argues: “We are here to spread a philosophy about a way of being, one which is much more harmonious and symbiotic with nature.” In fact, Rude Health, also based in London, started in 2005 by selling muesli, but quickly grew into a small health food empire, extending its product range by adding plant mylks.
Today, almond makes up around two thirds of all plant mylks sold, but it is suffering its own reputational crisis. One issue is environmental: it takes 4.5 litres of water to grow a single almond (technically not a nut, but a seed). In California, which grows 8 in 10 of the world’s almond crop, almond growing consumes an estimated 10% of the entire water supply – a controversial issue in a state often afflicted by drought. Consumers have also caught on that the actual almond content of most almond mylks is minuscule. Both Silk and Alpro contain just 2% almonds. However, industry insiders say that almond’s moment is over. Right now the real growth is in coconut, and in oat.
In 2012, when Petersson took over as CEO of Oatly, almost nobody had heard of oat mylk outside of Sweden. Petersson set about reinventing oat milk’s image: “You can grow oats everywhere. It has carbs, it has fat, it has protein and it has fibre.” The new concept was simple: “If you’re not lactose intolerant, why would you notice our product?” So, Oatly set out to redesign its packaging for a millennial-friendly look. Oatly was restyled as Oat-ly! and the side of each carton displayed one of more than 80 messages written by Oatly staff, which congratulated readers on being part of the “post-milk generation” and, only semi-ironically, joining “the cult”. Oatly’s breakthrough strategy was the creation of its Barista Edition. Most plant milks split in hot drinks and do not foam like cow’s milk, due to the plant proteins. There, Oatly has an advantage: it foams, and the taste of oat is mostly masked by the coffee. Oatly ignored supermarkets and targeted coffee bars in the hip neighbourhoods of Brooklyn in New York and Shoreditch in London. Those are the places where people can experience the product and trigger demand for the product.
What most plant milks are desperate to tell you is what they do not have in them. Dairy-free; sugar-free; soya-free; gluten-free; GMO-free; bisphenol A-free. The “free from” declarations are actually longer than the ingredients list. Califia Farms’ unsweetened almond milk boasts “50% more calcium than milk” on its bottle – but it does not contain Vitamin D, B12, Riboflavin or any of the other nutrients found in milk or other fortified plant milks. It is the inevitable culmination of today’s anxious eating culture: we have gone from buying foods on the merits of their ingredients, to buying them on the basis of what’s left out. Our growing suspicion of milk is perhaps a symptom of a lost faith in agriculture as well as experts’ advice. Consumer have become skeptical. People have learned that dietary advice constantly changes.
Afterall, the plant milk boom should not really be all about nutrition, but the shift towards ethical, plant-based living should mainly be regarded as a way to be impacting our planet. Netflix has provided previously untapped audiences for documentaries like Cowspiracy and What the Health. Besides the ill-treatment of animals, evidence has mounted that the dairy industry is catastrophic for the environment. Animal agriculture contributes more greenhouse gases than aviation, shipping and road vehicles combined. One recent study led by Oxford University claimed that following a vegetarian or vegan diet is the single most effective way to reduce your own environmental footprint.