The post-milk era? Plant-based alternatives are on the rise

Op-eds Opinions
Graphic by Nat Inez

Milk isn’t what the cool kids are drinking these days. The downward spiral of dairy product consumption has been increasingly apparent on store shelves and kitchen counters in recent years. In the United States alone, the Dairy Farmers of America reported a decline of $1.1 billion in sales from 2017 to 2018. Statistics worldwide tell a similar story: dairy is in serious decline. But what’s come to replace it? 

The rise of milk alternatives began in the late 2000s, when many consumers began to shift away from dairy consumption due to mounting health concerns. No longer just an imminent threat to Big Dairy, the growth of plant-based milk has since spread like wildfire and competitors in the industry are eager to capture as much of the dairy market as much as possible. One projection of growth in plant-based milk sales predicts $38 billion in cumulative revenue from 2019 to 2024. And the reason for this astronomical shift in consumer consumption patterns may merely hidden in plain sight, beyond the stark white cartons and jugs of Dairyland and Island Farms. Glance to the side of the supermarket coolers and you’ll quickly see there’s much more than plain old milk available in abundance these days. 

The sheer variety of dairy beverage alternatives that have become available to consumers is one notable dimension of the plant-based phenomenon. The earliest offerings mostly consisted of nut-based options like almond, cashew, and hazelnut milk. Although the former remains one of the most popular and widely available options for plant-based milk, allergy concerns contributed to the rise of many other “milks” like soy and rice milk. Yet soy milk also became embroiled in a minor “non-milk” milk controversy when reports misleadingly linked it to hormone imbalances in the body. As public fear mounted, alternatives to the alternatives themselves like quinoa, pea, and oat milk were introduced into the market. 

Oat milk in particular has become a rising star in the world of the dairy-free. What began as a humble, small-scale Scandinavian research project at Lund University in the 1990s quickly became an internationally sought-after plant-based oat milk product that catapulted Oatly, the company behind it, to fame. Oatly’s dairy-free offerings have since acquired a cult following, with public demand causing a 2018 shortage in the U.S. and an entire website (aptly named Oatfinder) dedicated to finding Oatly vendors near you.

The environmental concerns behind dairy consumption are dissuading today’s young people away from traditional milk and consequently also undermining the ubiquity of dairy. 

As public demand increases, the “non-milk milk” market is also learning to adapt to it. Major corporations are eyeing the long-term profitability of the plant-based milk industry. An estimated 15 per cent of all “milk” sales in the U.S. now go to plant-based products, a sign that this consumer pattern is becoming more than just a trend and is now taking on a life of its own. Notable brands like Califia and Ripple are cashing in on the consumer shift, entering major North American grocers such as Walmart and Whole Foods and charging six dollars on average for a single jug of 1.4 L (48 U.S. fl oz) almond milk, and investors are paying attention to the industry’s profitability. 

Many Canadians today are also beginning to see the alternative as the norm, especially with a near 10 per cent of the population who now consider themselves either vegetarian or vegan (and as a result, invariably choose plant-based options over traditional dairy). One reason for this shift may be the public’s growing distaste for the hormone, lactose, and saturated fat contents of conventional dairy, in addition to mounting environmental concerns: cows are one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions worldwide. The environmental concerns behind dairy consumption are dissuading today’s young people away from traditional milk and consequently also undermining the ubiquity of dairy. 

It’s worth noting that some dairy alternatives are more sustainable options than others. Almond milk is arguably not much better for Mother Nature than traditional milk. Almonds are actually a water-guzzling commodity that is worsening the effects of drought where the vast majority of the world’s supply are grown: the state of California. Quinoa milk has a similar drawback: parts of South America saw the price of quinoa skyrocket as western demand for the nutrient-dense grain and effectively priced many in countries such as Peru out of a cultural dietary staple. 

So perhaps there is no such thing as 100 per cent guilt-free milk. But the Canadian under-35 cohort is effectively ushering our world into a post-milk era, where the milk carton will no longer grace the shelves of Canadian fridges as consistently as it might have done just a decade or two ago. All signs point toward a long-term shift in dietary patterns, the rise of plant-based milks (among other things, like the development of “Beyond Meat” and a greater consciousness of food production systems worldwide) seem to be echoing that very statement: the future is plant-based.