Consumers are switching from traditional dairy to substitutes. 1 in 5 Americans says this is for health reasons. But are dairy-free alternatives actually better for you than traditional milk?
Since 2012, dairy milk sales have dropped 15% and non-dairy ‘milk’ sales have grown a whopping 61%. Yet, from a young age, we are told to drink our milk—that it will make our bones nice and strong! Milk is a nutrient-dense complete protein that is also rich in vitamins and minerals. So, why are people replacing milk in the first place? Lactose intolerance, dietary fads, and improved technologies all have spurred growth in the alternative milk market.
The alternative milk market now has more varieties than traditional milks. Packaged with colorful and enticing “fortified with” labels, it can be difficult to differentiate the nutritious value between all of the options. These alternative “milk” options include a variety of nut milks (almond, coconut, cashew, pistachio, hazelnut, etc.), legume-based milks (soy or pea), seed-based milks (hemp and flax) and cereal-based milks (rice or oat).
Because alternative milk options haven’t been around as long as milk, there are many mixed messages from both the media and food processing companies to shape our thoughts on these products one way or the other. And, as mindful consumers, we are constantly evaluating new options that may help to improve our health and eating habits.
The Market: Dairy and the Alternatives
According to Mintel Market Research, the dairy milk market was valued at $16.12 billion in 2017, a 15% decline since 2012. Comparatively, the non-dairy milk market is valued at $2.11 billion. By 2023, the global dairy alternatives market is expected to reach $19.45 billion.
What our Dairy Farmers think…
The dairy industry is fighting against the misrepresentation of these new alternative ‘milk’ products. Dairy farmers believe the labeling of these substitute products as “milk” is nutritionally misleading as they often have less protein, calcium, vitamins, and minerals than traditional milk and also contains added sugars. According to the FDA, the “milk” label means the product comes from a dairy producing animal. In fact, in a recent legal case, a California resident sued Blue Diamond for deceiving and confusing the customer with their labeling!
What does the FDA say?
The FDA has a Standard of identity for food, which protects the consumer by ensuring a label accurately reflects what is inside. For instance, ice cream must be called ice milk if it has less than 10 percent of butter fat. In the case of milk, the description is as follows: “Milk is the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows. Milk shall contain not less than 8 1/4 percent milk solids not fat and not less than 3 1/4 percent milk fat.” In other words, milk comes from a dairy producing animal containing milk fats and solids – and not a tree or plant!
Almond, Coconut, Pea, and Hemp…Oh my!
As previously mentioned, the non-dairy market has grown by 61% since 2012. Occupying the majority of the growth is almond milk, with 64% of the market share. This is followed by coconut and soy milk, which assume 12% and 13%, respectively. The almond milk industry alone is worth $5.36 billion and has a huge growth projection of $7.2 billion by 2020.
As the demand for milk substitutes continues to climb, there are more and more companies getting into the market. The French company Danone, whose brands include Dannon, Evian, and Bonafont, now includes Whitewave, the largest plant-based milk provider in the United States. Whitewave’s alternative milk products include Silk, SoDelicious, along with other plant-based food brands (Alpro & Vega). Other key players in the industry include Blue Diamond Growers (Almond Breeze), Eden Foods Inc., and Hain Celestial Group Inc. (Rice Dream, Almond Dream, Dream Blends). But, lets put their profitability into perspective— a jug of almond milk contains roughly 39 cents worth of almonds, plus filtered water and additives and it retails for $3.99+. No wonder there are so many players entering the market!
But why are we looking far and wide for healthy substitutes when milk itself is so nutrient-dense?
Compared to the alternative milk products, cow’s milk is the most well-balanced source of key nutrients like proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Milk is a rich source of calcium and contains high levels of B Vitamins. It is also a complete protein, meaning it contains all 9 essential amino acids. And while many milk alternatives have some of the beneficial aspects of traditional dairy, they also lack in areas where milk exceeds, while also having sugar added to the product.
The Bottom Line:
If you are drinking non-dairy ‘milks’ because you like the taste or experience difficulty digesting lactose, then stick to it. However, if you are under the impression that non-dairy milks are healthier, think again! Milk is a nutrient-dense vehicle for calcium, protein, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals!