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plant-based milk alternatives

The Continuing Evolution of Plant-Based Milk Alternatives

There’s no denying that plant-based milk alternatives have a big presence. From dairy cases to artisanal coffee shops, customers can choose from a growing variety of replacements for cow’s milk. A recent report, the Good Food Institute 2021 U.S. Retail Market Insights, Plant-based Foods, notes that plant-based milk accounts for 16% of all dollar sales for milk in the US, with a 4% one-year dollar growth and a household penetration of 42%. North America is the third largest market globally for plant-based milk. Innova Market Insights reports that North America accounted for an 11% share of dairy alternative drinks launches between July 2021 and June 2022. Launch activity was more robust in Europe and Asia – each region contributed one-third of new dairy alternative drinks over the same 12-month period.

Several factors are driving innovation in North American dairy alternative drinks. In its analysis of the marketplace, Innova identifies varied factors around clean products (crafted using 100% natural, carbon neutral packaging), enhanced protein content, nutrient parity with cow’s milk, reduction of inherent and added sugar, and functional ingredients (ginger, green tea extract, other immune-boosters and antioxidants). Innovation is likely to continue as new companies enter the marketplace and all products compete for consumers.

Production methods

Production of dairy alternative milk, sometimes spelled “mylk” to differentiate it from traditional milk, involves several steps. The cell structure of the plant base – typically nuts, seeds, grains, or legumes – is disrupted through soaking and grinding, or other methods. The resultant base mixture requires heating to deactivate enzymes, filtering to remove unwanted material, and heating to destroy pathogens. What differentiates one brand from another is the chosen base or bases, ingredients that enhance sensory properties, masking agents to cover up any bean or pea flavor notes, and added nutrients.

Types of bases continue to expand

Years ago, soy was the dominant base in dairy milk alternatives. Consumer sentiment, particularly in the US, then turned away from soy as questions arose regarding genetic modification of soy beans and health implications of soy consumption. Despite the lack of scientific evidence to substantiate these concerns, US consumption of soy milk dropped. Today, almond is the number one base in plant-based milk and accounts for about 60% of product bases. Oat is a fast-growing number two base, even in Asia where soy products are readily embraced.

Many leading brands offer a portfolio of products with varied bases and flavors to appeal to a broad range of consumers. Danone’s Silk line includes soy, cashew, almond, and coconut milk products. Beverage products from Blue Diamond Growers, an agricultural cooperative for California almond growers, feature an almond milk base alone or combined with coconut milk or bananas. Elmhurst Milked produces a wide range of clean label nut milks, including almond milk, cashew milk, walnut milk, and hazelnut milk. Most are made from only the signature nut plus water. Other brands in the US include Ripple (pea protein), Seeds of Wellness (chia seeds), Good Karma (pea protein with flax oil), and Califia Farms (almond milk, oat milk with pea protein, almond plus coconut milk). Companies typically offer both unflavored and flavored varieties, and many produce thicker products for use in coffee beverages.

Seeking nutrition parity  

Plant bases for dairy alternative drinks do not match the nutrition profile of cow’s milk. That is why many products are fortified to better replicate key dairy nutrients. Because almonds and cashews are relatively low in protein – and their milks are even lower – almond milk and cashew milk brands that feature a protein claim have added a source of protein, typically pea protein. Pea protein-based Ripple adds enough protein to match the level in dairy milk; the brand’s products also are fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Hope & Sesame enhances its sesame protein base with either pea protein or chickpea protein. Dairy alternative bases also lack the key vitamins and minerals of dairy milk, so many brands fortify with the hallmark dairy milk nutrients calcium and vitamin D. Ripple, for example, adds calcium and vitamin D in amounts that exceed the nutrient content of an equivalent volume of cow’s milk. Several brands also add vitamin B12, which is found naturally in dairy milk but not in plant-based products, to serve as a source for vegans. Still, fortified soy milk currently is the only plant-based dairy alternative drink included in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and permitted in school meals programs as a nutritional equivalent to cow’s milk.

Products also may contain nutrients and ingredients not found in dairy milk, such as fiber, medium-chain triglyceride oil for followers of the ketogenic diet, omega-3 fatty acids, including alpha-linolenic acid, and functional ingredients.

One ingredient to watch for is animal-free whey protein. Cultivated through precision fermentation, animal-free whey protein offers high quality dairy protein that is identical to the whey protein found in cow’s milk. While not strictly plant-based, it offers an option for consumers looking for animal-free products.

Drinking to sustainability

The sustainability messaging found on dairy alternative packaging can appeal to consumers who shop with the environment in mind. Sustainable products are highly prominent in Europe, where approximately half of 2021 new food and beverage launches carried a sustainability-related claim, according to Innova Market Insights. This compares to 17% in Asia and 8% in North America, although the prevalence of claims is growing in both regions.

Consumer interest in sustainability is helping drive growth of plant-based dairy alternatives. As reported in a 2020 article in the Journal of Dairy Science on consumer perception of the sustainability of dairy products and plant-based alternatives, consumers who purchased plant-based dairy alternatives along with dairy products were more likely to say that sustainability is important, as compared to consumers of dairy only. Consumers who participated in the study defined sustainability as minimal carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions, few or no preservatives, animal happiness and welfare, and simple ingredients. Many plant-based dairy alternatives call out their sustainability credentials on their website. Common claims include reduced carbon footprint, lower water usage, less plastic used in packaging, restoration of land and water, and alignment with organizations committed to sustainability.

Coming next – products made with upcycled ingredients such as spent barley grain, proteins left over from starch and oil production, and “ugly” ingredients that combine nutrition with sustainability messages.

Dot Foods

Get to Know Dot Foods: Opportunity for Brands

Who Is Dot?

Dot Foods is the largest food redistribution company in North America. The company was founded by Robert and Dorothy Tracy in 1960.  It is still family owned, and several family members serve in various roles throughout the company.

Every week, Dot trucks deliver food and non-food products to thousands of distributors across the US and Canada.  In addition, Dot sells products to distributors in over 40 countries outside the United States.  The company owns and operates 12 U.S. distribution centers and 2 Canadian distribution centers. In addition, Dot has an affiliate trucking company, Dot Transportation, Inc., with a national truck fleet and company drivers.

What We Do

Dot Foods purchases products from brands, and then re-sells these products to distributors and self-distributing retailers across all channels, including grocery, foodservice, vending, convenience store, drug, and industrial.  Dot Foods has multi-temp capability, meaning ambient, refrigerated, and frozen items and can all be delivered on the same truck.  Distributors that buy from Dot get weekly deliveries within 2-4 days of their order, anywhere within the United States.

Top 4 Problems Dot Can Solve

  1. Channel Access: Many brands would like to branch out and reach customers in other channels.  Maybe your products started in Natural stores and now you want to be able to offer your products to restaurants.  Dot can help you get into foodservice.
  1. Shipping Woes: Your current customers ask you to deliver them products, on time and with 100% fill rates. The cost and complexity of shipping can be magnified when the orders are small or infrequent. Dot can ship one case (along with many other products) to the same customers you are selling to today.
  1. Speed To Market: Maybe you are located on the West coast and need your products delivered to the big East coast cities? Depending on the order size, these deliveries can take 2-3 weeks to arrive. The Dot model allows for customers to get their orders within the same week.
  2. Customer Reach: You need more customers, plain and simple.  Brands who work with Dot have access to our sales team that can introduce you to new points of distribution, expanding your sales much faster than could be done otherwise. Without the barrier of long lead time, high order minimums or access to products, your business will grow much faster.

How Dot Solves Problems

Dot Foods is a turnkey solution that combines the speed of delivery across North America, with the multi-temp capability and access to distributors across all channels that is simply unmatched in the industry. Distributors and Self-Distributing retail chains can order as little as one case of your product, and it will ship with the rest of their Dot order and arrive the same week.  This capability resolves the common supply chain issues that create chaos in your business and unlock your brand’s potential in the marketplace.

Rodd Willis is the Director of Business Development – Natural and Specialty at Dot Foods.  He has been with Dot since 1997 and has held various roles in sales and business development during his tenure.  He is also a member of the Plant Based World Expo Buyer’s Council.  He is based in St. Louis, MO. 

Kroger and Hannaford Lead the Way with Plant Based Foods Association Partnerships

It was not long ago that a plant-based eater had to make a separate trip to a natural and organic store like Whole Foods to find a real selection of meat, dairy and other alternatives. This is no longer the case, thanks to recent programs launched by the Plant Based Foods Association (PBFA) in partnership with leading grocers Kroger and Hannaford.

The groundbreaking test with Kroger took place in 60 stores from late 2019 to early 2020. The data was clear: when America’s largest grocery chain placed plant-based products in the meat department, sales of those items increased by 23% on average. A clear sign to the food retail world that consumers are now looking for these products in the traditional meat aisle, and there is money to be made in offering them in this place.

More recent data has shown steep increases in consumption of plant-based food during the pandemic months with 50% growth in plant-based customers and 75% growth in sales. The numbers prove that American shoppers want healthier, more sustainable options now more than ever.

4 shelves of plant-based meats amidst the traditional animal products at Kroger. Photo courtesy of PBFA

PBFA’s newest program with leading retailer Hannaford spans beyond the meat department to the dairy and shelf-stable sections of the store. The partnership thus far has highlighted the importance of creative merchandising to drive consumer attention to the new products that are available. The Plant Based Foods Association is working directly with the grocer to shine a deserving spotlight on these sought-after foods, while also educating grocery employees to understand the benefits that these products have to offer.

Hannaford’s version of a plant-based section in the traditional meat aisle. Photo courtesy of PBFA

These efforts not only increase the bottom line for the grocery store and the brands they carry, but builds community while doing it. There is a true excitement that comes from participating in the movement towards a more plant-based world – an elevated sense of purpose that we can both do our jobs successfully and help people feel healthier and happier while doing so.

Julie Emmett, Senior Director of Retail Partnerships for PBFA, has taken the reins on these initiatives:

PBFA‘s role is to actively support the opportunities and minimize the challenges that a shift in merchandising presents. The incredible results that Kroger and Hannaford have shared have encouraged PBFA as well as major brands to create advisory teams to ensure industry-wide success of this shift in merchandising across the 17+ plant-based food categories available. The opportunity for retailers to provide shoppers with the options they crave – and to profit from those efforts – is becoming limitless!

-Julie Emmett

When the most influential grocery businesses in the United States are on the front lines of this shift, we can only expect the rest to follow. This transformation of consumer habits is here to stay and we look forward to following the great work of PBFA and their partners for many years to come!