The Evolving Market For Plant-Based Milk: Alfalfa and Other Potential Sources
Plant-based milks: from barista bars to supermarket shelves, these dairy alternatives have taken the world by storm. But how did we get to this point, and what does their growing popularity mean for human health? To answer these questions and more, we take a look at the current state of the plant-based milk market and what drives consumer interest in trying them, as well as thinking more about a potential new crop for milk products.
From the plant-based past to the present
Though oat or soy milk options are common at cafes today, our relationship with plant-based milks goes back much further. Humans have made plant milks since ancient times out of all sorts of things: grains, beans, nuts, and more. One notable record of this tradition comes from the Americas in the late 1720s. Elizabeth Hanson, a colonial woman from New Hampshire, described the pounding of walnuts to make a milk-like liquid for her infant child while in captivity.
The modern process of making plant milk follows the same basic principles as the ones that Indigenous people once discovered, though with some technological twists. Plants are soaked in water to soften them, then ground up, just as Elizabeth Hanson once did by hand. At this point in the process, modern science takes the reins, and the oils and fats that are desirable for a milk-like beverage are extracted from the ground mixture. After some additional removal of starches and fiber, the extract is then heated to sterilize it and prevent spoilage, and homogenized to make sure the texture and composition of the plant milk is consistent throughout. Finally, any flavors or remaining ingredients are added, and “hey, presto!” — a plant turns into plant-based milk.
From their historical origins, plant milks have since grown into a bustling market. In 2021, the global market for plant-based milk was estimated at $13.24 billion, with estimated growth to $30.79 billion by 2030. Some leading reasons for this boom are increasing interest in veganism, self-diagnoses of lactose intolerance, and a desire to purchase sustainable products. As of 2021, plant-based milks made up a $2.6 billion market in the United States alone. Breaking that number down further, 42% of households buy plant-based milks, equating to over 50 million homes nationwide, with 76% of those homes being repeat customers. It seems that many people have committed to this trend, and that plant milks are here to stay. Interestingly, plant-based milks are, on average, nearly twice as expensive as dairy milk, but consumers still aren’t shying away from them at the grocery store.
Almond, oat, and soy, oh my!
As the numbers show, consumers are interested in trying new things, and plant-based milk products are responding in force. Looking at statistics from 2019–20, almond milk crowned the leaderboard with $1.5 billion worth of sales, but oat milk saw an explosive growth of 350% to second place. Alongside these two, soy, coconut, rice, and pea milks also represent other pillars in the plant-based milk market, with consumers driving no less than $50 million worth of purchases for each of these products.
Another part of plant-based milk’s growing popularity is the sheer variety that is available. Besides sweetened and unsweetened versions, companies are experimenting with new flavors as well, ranging from a classic chocolate milk flavor to more innovative offerings like Almond Breeze blended with bananas from Blue Diamond. Beyond milks, plant-based products are now moving into other spaces occupied by dairy, such as yogurt and frozen desserts, presenting a unique alternative to traditional comfort foods that we know and love.
Three strikes and you’re in
There are three main reasons driving the increasing individual interest in plant-based milks, all of which represent target goals for entering the market:
- Consumers want products that make them feel healthier: there’s a history of consumer concerns with dairy products, and plant-based milks can sidestep these entirely. There is a desire for local, all-natural, protein-rich, and low-calorie beverages to replace dairy milk, which opens the door to the possibilities of developing new plant-based milks.
- Consumers want products that have superior sensory properties to the competition: it’s easy to list the sensations of drinking cow milk: it tastes sweet, is creamy, and has a very neutral taste. To help the transition from traditional dairy to plant-based milks, companies must strive to make their products give us the same sensations as drinking cow milk. Common grievances with plant-based milks include grittiness and unusual flavors, which should be addressed to better satisfy consumers.
- Consumers want products that are sustainable: younger generations are increasingly concerned with their impact on the environment, and plant-based milks are one way of taking action. However, despite the plant-based aspect of these products, there is room for improvement in improving sustainability and the education surrounding it. Though shelf-stable boxed milks are popular, cold transport is still a major source of carbon, and, if you’ll recall the earlier statement about the boom in oat milk sales, that 350% increase was for refrigerated products alone. Following transport, another challenge in the lifespan of a plant milk product is the disposal of its packaging, as some locations aren’t equipped to effectively recycle materials. Despite the environment-forward thinking that drives a lot of the interest in plant-based milk, there is still a need for better consumer education on sustainable measures and actions to improve their climate impact.
With these three reasons in mind, would it be possible for a new plant-based milk to break onto the scene? One crop that springs to the forefront is the humble alfalfa: though mostly associated with livestock feed, it is the fourth largest crop in the US by acreage and production, beaten only by corn, soy, and wheat. We produce an average of 52,395 megatons of alfalfa per year (the weight of over 150,000 blue whales!), and it costs roughly $200 a ton (~$0.12 per pound). By comparison, this is half the price of soy (~$400/ton, ~$0.20/pound), 1/5th the price of oat (~$1000/ton, ~$0.50/pound), and 1/20th the price of almonds (~$4000/ton, ~$2/pound)! We’re also surrounded by alfalfa, given that it can be grown across most of the continental US, a stark alternative to its rival crops: soybeans, oats, and almonds, as illustrated in the images below. This can be further leveraged during the making of plant milks, as transport fees can be avoided by growing the original crop closer to production facilities as well. Alfalfa can be processed into plant-based milk as described in the first section, but there is also the possibility of using it to make the nutrients found in dairy milk. By fermenting plant material (alfalfa or otherwise) with microbes (tiny living organisms found all around us that are too small to see with the naked eye, many of which live on or in our bodies and play various important roles in our lives), proteins found in milk can be produced and collected for use in the production of dairy alternatives, a process known as cellular agriculture. All in all, alfalfa is shaping up to be a promising low-cost, easily grown crop for plant-based milk production though it is yet to be explored in depth.
We’ve talked a bit about taste and mouthfeel thus far, but what do plant-based milks mean for your health? Compared to dairy milk, plant-based milks typically contain less saturated fats, less sugar, and less calories per serving, while at the same time having more magnesium, folate and vitamin E. But in general, they contain less calcium and vitamins A, D, and B12 than their cow counterpart. Companies have addressed this issue by fortifying their plant milk products, allowing for nutritional profiles to match the standard.
Back to the possibility of alfalfa milk, there are some unique nutritional benefits to the idea. Alfalfa can lower cholesterol through a unique family of chemicals called saponins, and it’s also rich in antioxidants and phenolics, which act in treating hyperglycemia, heart disease, osteoporosis, and other conditions. However, there are some other chemicals in alfalfa that are detrimental in large quantities, though this is a problem typical of seeds and not the plant itself (hence the adage of not eating apple seeds).
Sustainability and future-forward farming
To revisit an earlier comment on consumer interest in sustainability, it is important to discuss the context of plant-based milks in the world. Historically, we have weighed the value of a product against its environmental cost based on things like proteins or calories contained within, as well as the amount produced. However, milk is an unusual case: we don’t get 100% of our daily protein from milk alone, and the calorie count of milk doesn’t reflect the true nutritional benefit of milk. This leaves the amount produced as a reasonable way of measuring the value of milks against their environmental impact.
There are four common factors in measuring product sustainability: land use, water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and eutrophication/acidification (the release of excess fertilizer into the environment and an increase in environmental acidity, respectively). Historically, soymilk has been the top performer in terms of sustainability, but this is largely because of the agricultural practices used for each of the staple plant milk crops, where soy requires less water to produce than the others. This leads us to the looming challenge of water usage, with increasing instances of drought or flooding making their way into the news with growing frequency. Writing from California, recent years have seen severe droughts, which is at odds with our production of almonds for almond milk, the most water-hungry of the plant milk crops by far. To make sure that plant-based milks stay true to their sustainability claims, there will need to be a critical examination of the practices used in their production, which will also help educate consumers to make purchases in line with their values.
Overall, the plant-based milk market shows strong signs of continuing growth. In addition to our current staple crops, alfalfa might also be posed to enter the market as a strong new competitor, delivering unique health benefits while being more sustainable and more affordable than other plants like soy or almond. With increasing consumer interest and companies delivering innovative products, we should expect that further time and money will be invested in improving the quality and sustainability of future plant-based milks.