It’s a bountiful time for plant-based milks, with new varieties of nuts, seeds, grains, legumes and now plant-based milks appearing on store shelves every year. Now comes potato milk.
The product, made by the Swedish company Dug Drinks, is already being sold in the UK and will go to the United States sometime this year. And according to a new report from British supermarket chain Waitrose, potato milk “will dominate coffee shop menus” in the coming months – as unlikely as that may sound.
Last August, Sara Bentley, 40, learned about Dug and his potato milk. Ms Bentley, who lives in London and runs a plant-based cooking school called Made In Hackney, was immediately interested.
“I was definitely excited because it was new, but of course it doesn’t sound appetizing,” she said. “You’re imagining tasteless potato water, which of course would be gross.” Mrs. Bentley and some of her cooking school colleagues tried to make their own potato milk, with disappointing results. “It wasn’t very tasty, but I’m definitely keen on a rematch as I can see the potential of it. The more viable alternatives to mass-produced dairy, the better.”
Mrs. Bentley is far from alone in that sentiment. Over the past decade, interest in the health, environmental and ethical benefits of a vegetarian or vegan diet has contributed to an increase in milk substitutes. Grocery store aisles and coffee shop counters are now populated with milk made from oats, almonds, cashews, macadamia nuts, hemp seeds, sesame seeds, peas and flax seeds.
You would think we have reached the peak of plant milk, but you would be wrong.
“I don’t think there’s an end in sight for alternative dairy innovation — or at least not anytime soon,” said Sydney Olson, a food and beverage analyst for Mintel, an international market research firm.
Plant-based foods are “a hot topic right now,” said David Julian McClements, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He has worked as a food scientist for more than 20 years, but for the last five years his research has focused entirely on plant-based foods, he said, “because that’s one of the key trends in the food industry right now for sustainability, ethical and health reasons.”
Irregular shopping habits that started during the pandemic, with panic buying and supply chain snafus, have also pushed more people to buy plant-based milks, said Denise Purcell, the vice president of content and education for the Specialty Foods Association, and an in- house expert in the field of trends.
“The shelves were empty and people were stocking up because they knew they would be home, and it was an opportunity if they couldn’t get their regular milk product,” Ms Purcell said. “It was a kind of gate. They would try it, and it would lead them to try other products.”
The pandemic has also led to more people cooking at home, using both dairy and plant-based milks. But Ms. Olson, the food and beverage analyst, said that while dairy milk sales are expected to return to the prepandemic trajectory of decline, non-dairy milks will continue to gain interest in plant-based diets.
Plant-based milk sales in the United States were $2.5 billion at the end of 2020, accounting for 15 percent of all retail milk sales and 35 percent of the larger plant-based food market. By the end of 2026, Ms Olson said, sales of dairy alternatives are expected to account for 30 percent of all milk sales. Much of that growth, Ms Purcell said, will come from small producers.
Plant-based milk has been around for centuries in cultures around the world. Horchata, a creamy drink made with ground tiger nuts (a type of tuber), originated a millennium ago in North Africa and has become popular in Spain and Latin America. Coconut milk, made from the liquid of shredded coconut meat, has been used for centuries in South Asia, South America, and the Caribbean.
Native Americans, especially in the northeastern United States, have used nuts to make nut butters and milks for infants. Almond milk has been a staple ingredient in North Africa, Europe and the Middle East for nearly 1,000 years. As almond milk became popular in Europe, the use of soy milk grew in China – and in the 1970s and 80s, soy milk could be found in health food stores in Western countries.
Today, much milk is made by soaking, grinding, pressing, or blending the nut, seed, or vegetable into a slurry that is then strained and sometimes mixed with oils or other ingredients that help emulsify it for a creamier texture. Because the process creates liquid from a wide variety of plant sources, the number of non-dairy milk blends and varieties is nearly limitless.
While plant-based milks appear to be a healthier alternative to cow’s milk, some milks may contain added sugars, be ultra-processed, or lack the same nutrients as cow’s milk. The dairy industry and some members of Congress have urged the US Food and Drug Administration to ban labeling plant products as “milk.”
Some highly processed plant-based milks can also have a negative impact on the environment. Most of the ingredients used in plant-based milks are associated with a lower carbon footprint than those in milk.
But many, especially nuts and coconuts, pose their own environmental problems. Almonds are typically grown in areas facing water scarcity, and the increased demand for them is depleting the water supply in those communities. The rising demand for coconut leads to increased cultivation and the potential for deforestation and loss of biodiversity.
While almond and oat milks may be the most popular plant-based milks on the market, blends that combine various nuts, seeds, grains, legumes and more are an emerging innovation, Ms. Olson said. She said the blends are aimed at consumers who are not necessarily vegan and who may be avoiding plant-based milks because of the taste or because they can’t cook with it.
Plant-based milk is less common. In 2015, Veggemo introduced a blended milk in Canada made from pea protein, cassava root and potato starch. Since 2016, the vegan food brand Ripple has been using pea protein as the basis for its milk. The Specialty Food Association trade show in February featured new plant-based milks, including oat milk made with mushrooms, banana milk and even cheese made from carrots.
But for many people, cow’s milk is still the standard for taste, and companies are always tweaking their products to be more similar to the dairy products most Americans are used to, Mr. McClements said.
“That is often a challenge,” he added, “because plant ingredients are naturally very different from animal ingredients. I think we will definitely see improvements in the future. It is still quite early.”
As the novelty wears off and awareness grows, consumers are more critical of their plant-based choices, said Ms. Olson. “Expectations are mounting and brands cannot afford to rely solely on plant-based claims.”
She said shoppers can expect more plant-based milk brands to address concerns about overprocessing on their labels — focusing on minimal and natural ingredients and focusing on benefits such as high protein and high vitamin and mineral content.
Ms Bentley, who runs the London cooking school, said she prefers plant-based milk over cow’s milk for ethical, health and sustainability reasons. She prefers hemp milk for its low environmental impact, and oat milk fortified with B and D vitamins for her son.
“Living in a metropolitan center like London, I don’t have to drink cow, goat or other animal milk,” she said, adding: “For people who get their food from the industrialized food system, plant-based milk is the way to go. right choice. No question.”