Are plant-based milks really all that popular?

Long gone are the days when cows’ milk was the only option available to pour over our cereal. People switching to plant-based diets, for health or environmental reasons, have paved the way for many alternative ‘milk’ options to pop up. You can now find everything from soy to almond to oat milk in almost every supermarket.

Statistics show that Australians consume around half a metric cup of milk alternatives per person weekly. In fact, our consumption of milk alternatives is increasing at the same rate dairy milk is falling.

However, a reader survey from revealed that, although full-cream milk may not be as popular as it was a decade ago, it still seems to be the preferred choice of many households. With more than half (57 per cent) of respondents saying that full-cream milk is their go-to.

Skim milk was the second most popular option, with 29 per cent of voters opting for it. This version has the same creamy goodness and taste as full cream, except with around only 0.1 per cent fat.

Perhaps surprisingly, with all the hype around plant-based milks, another cow’s milk product came in third. Long-life milk, which is scientifically treated to have an extended shelf life, received 16 per cent of the votes.

For those wanting a vegan-friendly or lactose-free option, almond milk came in top with 8 per cent of the votes. Oat milk and soy milk tied in popularity at 6 per cent of respondents. And coming in at just 1 per cent of voters was, surprisingly, goats’ milk.

The results prove milk still plays a very important role in the average Australian’s diet but why the sudden rise in popularity for other milks?

Lactose intolerance and more products available

Professor Johannes le Coutre, from the UNSW School of Chemical Engineering, says he’s not surprised by the expansion of the plant-based milk aisle. The food and health expert says in the first place, human bodies are not physiologically optimised to digest dairy milk.

“Food history is full of examples where we try to mimic animal products, so having plant-based milk is not an entirely new idea,” Prof. le Coutre says.

“Human adults are not necessarily the target consumers for cows’ milk in nature. It’s a product meant for babies, specifically for cow babies,” he says.

Many adults have an intolerance to lactose – the sugar in dairy. If they drink cows’ milk or eat other dairy by-products, they can experience bloating, pain and diarrhoea. Plant-based milk offers a lactose-free alternative for those people.

“If someone has an intolerance to dairy, it is easier for their body to digest plant-based milk,” says nutritionist Dr Rebecca Reynolds, adjunct lecturer at the School of Population Health, UNSW Medicine & Health. “While some regular milk has the lactose removed, many prefer the taste of plant-based milk.”

Researcher in consumer behaviour, Associate Professor Nitika Garg, School of Marketing, UNSW Business School, says the quality and variety of plant-based milk available has improved in recent times.

“The taste is undoubtedly a key factor because consumers don’t want to feel they need to compromise on flavour,” Assoc. Prof. Garg says. “Today, if you feel uncomfortable consuming dairy milk, there are a lot more alternatives in the market you can try that weren’t available 20 years ago.”

An ethical choice for animals and the environment

Many people are choosing to switch to alternative milk products for ethical reasons. One of the main concerns is the treatment of livestock in the dairy milk production process.

“There is a movement of consumers who resent animal products – such as milk – because they are not necessarily associated with good animal welfare,” Prof. le Coutre says.

The growth in plant-based milks can also be attributed to changing consumer perceptions about the sustainability of the dairy industry. There is growing awareness of the impact dairy production is having on the climate and environment. As a result, more consumers are opting for plant-based milks as a more sustainable option.

Some plant milks might be more planet friendly than others though. For example, it’s estimated that growing a single almond requires 12 litres of water. Still, almond milk uses less land and water than dairy milk and has lower greenhouse gas emissions.

“[But] there are challenges when it comes to plant-based products in that they usually destroy a lot of nutritional goodness and require a lot of resources just to mimic a product [milk] that isn’t intended for human consumption in the first place,” Prof. le Coutre says.

Health benefits and calorie concerns

Milk alternatives are also becoming an increasingly popular choice among health-conscious consumers. But what some consider to be a ‘healthier’ option is not always the case.

“Overall, cows’ milk has a better nutritional profile than plant milks, with more protein and micronutrients such as calcium,” Dr Reynolds says. “However, plant-based milks often have micronutrients added to them, can have less overall fat and saturated fat than dairy milk and more healthy plant phenol antioxidants.”

Out of all the plant-based milks out there, soy might be the strongest dairy-free plant alternative in terms of nutritional profile.

“Some have added refined sugar, which includes ingredients such as ‘organic brown rice syrup’, which is less healthy than the natural sugar lactose that’s found in cows’ milk,” Dr Reynolds says. “This means that they can also be higher in high glycaemic index carbohydrates, which can increase blood glucose levels more than lactose.”

If the plant milk you like to drink is fortified with nutrients such as calcium, there may not be a need to take an additional supplement. However, it’s estimated more than 50 per cent of Australians aged two years and above don’t consume enough calcium and other micronutrients.

The future of plant-based milk

Plant-based milks are predicted to continue to rise in popularity. Perhaps one day they might even supplant dairy milk in popularity.

“People are choosing plant-based milk more and more, and so it would make sense for governments to take advantage of the opportunity to support the production here in Australia,” Assoc. Prof. Garg says. “It would also still be supporting the Australian agricultural industry, which is an important consideration for some consumers.”

The choice to switch to plant-based milk may not be available to everyone because of the higher cost.

“Overall, if you can afford it, buying a plant-based milk fortified with micronutrients, such as calcium and without added sugar, can be a good way to use your consumer power to help the environment and climate change,” Dr Reynolds says.

Which milk do you choose to put in your coffee? Are you sensitive to dairy or lactose? Let us know in the comments section below.

Also read: Soy, oat, almond, rice, coconut, dairy: which ‘milk’ is best?

Ellie Baxter
Ellie Baxter
Writer and editor with interests in travel, health, wellbeing and food. Has knowledge of marketing psychology, social media management and is a keen observer and commentator on issues facing older Australians.


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