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The Evolution of The Alt-Milk

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Even with sales in some quarters of the plant-based industry taking a hit, dairy alternatives continue to take the world by storm – with sales growing by 19% between 2020-22. Oat milk is as popular as ever, while almond milk is still king in the US.

This growth has been helped by a wave of alt-milks that come in different formats and offer more uses for the consumer. These novel versions eschew the traditional for something unusual – whether it’s a harmony of multiple base ingredients or new ways to prepare and consume dairy-free milk.

Alt-Milk Powders

While they’ve been around for a while in the US, powdered plant-based milks are slowly making their way to the global mainstream. In the UK, for example, two new oat milk powders were launched in January.

One was from Mighty, the brand introducing the UK to pea milk before expanding into oat and precision fermentation. The other was from a start-up called Overherd.

While alt-milks are hailed for their animal-free nature and eco credentials, they also come with their problems. This industry is associated with a lot of waste, whether raw material residue, use-by dates or product packaging.

Most mass-market vegan milks are presented in Tetra Paks, which preserve freshness and extend their shelf life. But this comes at an environmental cost: currently, only 26% of Tetra Pak cartons are recycled globally.

This spurred Sandy Eyre, the founder of Overherd, to create powdered oat milk. He also had another reason. “I was surprised to see an oat content of only 10%, the rest being mostly water,” he explains. “It seemed silly to ship around all this water when we have taps at home.”

Sustainability is the biggest advantage that alt-milk powders possess. Overheard uses 90% less packaging weight than standard oat milk cartons on a per-litre basis. It’s also 10 times lighter, saving on transport emissions throughout the supply chain and making it ideal for travel and camping.

Additionally, it is a dried product and boasts a much longer shelf life. And to further address food waste, you can customise how much oat milk you want to make in one go – a litre or two, a pint, or even just a glass. While you can mix some with water when and as needed, even if you make a large batch, they’ll be good for three days in the fridge.

There’s another major plus, notes Eyre: “Less food waste also means financial savings for customers, which is important at the moment.”

He says the flavour isn’t too dissimilar from store-bought oat milks. He finds that the resultant milk has a natural sweetness and mild oat flavour, and you can adjust the concentrate-to-water ratio to reach the desired thickness.

And what about using it as an alternative to conventional milk powder? The most exciting aspect of alt-milk powders is their multifunctionality – they can replace cow’s milk powder in various applications, including cooking and baking. They can also double as a creamer, mixing them directly into your coffee or tea. This is the case with the Instant range by US brand Goodmylk, which includes vegan-flavoured lattes and creamers in powdered forms.

While these products aren’t specifically designed to be used as barista milks, Eyre says Overherd’s offering steams well and can be used in latte art. Mighty’s powder contains oats, coconut oil, and salt. At the same time, Overherd comprises oats, coconut MCT powder (for creaminess and its brain health benefits) and chicory root fibre (for texture and mouthfeel), and is fortified with calcium carbonate and vitamin B12.

As with good coffee, the one downside of the DIY nature of this product is the water quality – your milk will only be as good as the water you use. Eyre also feels that powdered milk doesn’t have the best reputation. “But we’re trying to change that,” he asserts, “at least for plant milk powders, anyway.”

Nut Milk Pastes

Another relatively new format of alt-milks are nut pastes. Think of them as a middle point between plant milk powders and liquid versions. In the US, JOI is a market leader in this sector. In the UK, it’s Nooj. “The alternative milks category is bloated with many replicas,” argues its founder Caroline Barton. “And consumers deserve more choice.”

Nooj’s pastes are essentially nuts ground with water to form a base for plant milk – as a consumer, all you have to do is add water at home to turn it into milk. It differentiates from regular milk in flavour – which is intentionally very nut-forward – and nutrient retention (Nooj’s manufacturing techniques help preserve nutrients in a way regular nut milks can’t).

Currently, Nooj’s offerings include almond and cashew pastes. While other ingredients are in the pipeline, it started with nuts due to their nutrient density and creamy texture, which sets them apart from other base ingredients.

Nut pastes share quite a few similarities with vegan milk powders. To start with, they’re highly versatile. “They can be mixed with many ingredients [and] stand in for a variety of dairy products, not just milk,” notes Barton. Think a base for cheesecakes, ice creams or chocolate truffles, or a star ingredient for vegan mayo, butter and even sour cream.

Additionally, they’re lighter to transport (saving on greenhouse gas emissions), and are quick and easy to use. These pastes can also be frozen to prolong their freshness and shelf life (even without doing so, they last 45 days in the fridge).

A key difference with regular homemade milks is that there are no discards here: if you’re making almond or cashew milk from whole nuts, you’re left with nut pulp. With nut pastes, nothing is filtered out, which means the ingredients add to the flavour and texture of the final product.

Perhaps the major question is how these pastes differ from unroasted nut butter. Barton believes nut butters need reconstituting with a blender instead of being mixed with a spoon or protein shaker to make a milk (which is the case with Nooj’s pastes). Moreover, unroasted nut butters are much more expensive and harder to manufacture.

Since nuts are also allergens, these pastes have their own manufacturing issues. The same could be said of oat milk (though Overherd’s powers use gluten-free oats). And Barton adds that nut milks are currently under the shadow of oat milk in terms of sustainability, but again, oats have their own problems with land use.

The clean-label ingredient list also appeals to many consumers. These pastes contain almonds or cashews, rapeseed glycerine, sunflower oil and salt. And while there are no acidity regulators, Barton says they do foam well and could be used for frothy milk.

Concentrated Milks and Blended Varieties

Alt-milk concentrates are also gaining ground. The aforementioned Goodmylk offers almond, hemp and ‘super oat’ milk in frozen formats. The almonds are sprouted for additional nutritional benefits, and comprise 60% of the final product (as opposed to the 2-4% found in conventional almond milks). The oat milk combines gluten-free oats with tiger nuts to balance the flavour profile and lend the milk a velvety texture.

Another major trend in this space is the emergence of blended milks. While they’ve been around for a while, interest in these products has exploded thanks to a demand for premium barista milks that mimic the taste of dairy. While many companies are using and exploring precision fermentation or artificial intelligence (like NotMilk), these milks see multiple ingredients used as a base.

So instead of calling it oat milk, these are blended “not milks”. And these are different from the hybrid varieties we’re seeing emerge, which combine diary with a plant-based ingredient.

In 2021, Mighty introduced its M!lkology range of biomass-fermented oat and pea milks. A year later, industry giant Alpro followed with its version called This is Not Milk, a blend of oat, corn fibre and pea protein. Nestlé has also entered this space, launching its Natural Bliss alt-milk range that combines oats with fava beans.

Innovation in this category is rife, and according to Barton, these new-format milks will gradually occupy their own space in the alt-dairy sector – not just for milk, but also yoghurts, desserts, mayonnaises, dips, spreads, cream cheese, and ice cream. Meanwhile, Eyre hopes to see alt-milk powders become more widespread in refillable formats in zero-waste wholesale stores.

The future looks complex – in the best way possible.

Anay Mridul