A Comax Flavors survey from last summer found that when it comes to plant-based dairy alternatives, consumers buy them for flavor most of all (48%), but more than one-third (36%) also value the perceived health benefits, according to Food Navigator. Other determining factors were price (37%), source of ingredients (33%) and being all-natural (30%).
The survey also asked about health and wellness, sustainability and animal welfare factors, and found that consumers from the millennial and Gen Z generations were much more prone to be concerned about animal welfare than baby boomers or older consumers.
Those in the dairy industry are more frustrated than surprised by these results since they believe that cow's milk is nutritionally superior to plant-based beverages, Food Navigator reported. Comax surveyed 1,000 U.S. adults in July 2017 who said they used non-dairy products at least three days a week.
The demand for plant-based dairy alternatives continues to climb. Non-dairy milk sales in the U.S. have increased 61% during the last five years and were estimated to reach $2.11 billion in 2017. Meanwhile, overall sales in the dairy milk category have dropped 15% since 2012, hitting an estimated $16.12 billion in 2017.
As the results of this survey showed, there are myriad reasons behind the trend, with some consumers believing non-dairy beverages taste better, while others think they're better for you. Still others may be lactose-intolerant or have milk allergies, or perhaps they're trying to limit cholesterol by cutting down on animal products.
Although dairy products remain very popular, the industry is being tested. It maintains that cow's milk is better as far as protein, calcium, vitamins and minerals go, but that belief was challenged by a study from McGill University in Quebec. Researchers there found that soy's ratio of protein, fat and carbs comes the closest to matching cow's milk when compared to beverages made from almond, rice and coconut.
And soy isn't the only challenger to dairy in the nutritional sweepstakes. Last year, pea-based milk brand Ripple developed a retro-style game to convince consumers that its product is nutritionally superior to all other nut and plant-based alternatives and even to traditional dairy milk.
Plant-based beverages claim other advantages as well. They have a longer shelf life than dairy-based milk.
The dairy industry appears undaunted and has been fighting back on a number of fronts. It's legally challenging the term "milk" when it's used by plant-based beverages and claiming, among other examples, that almond milk is nothing but "nut water" since there's no cow.
Such arguments get nowhere with Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association. As she told The New York Times last year, "There’s no cow on any of these containers of almond milk or soy milk. No one is trying to fool consumers. All they're trying to do is create a better alternative for people who are looking for that option."
A wiser strategy for the dairy industry is the current effort to diversify into new and innovative products that resonate with consumers. Two of the latest market entries are carbonated, or "fizzy," milk products, which could build off the current sparkling water trend, and flavored milk. The latter is said to have a longer shelf life than regular milk — thereby potentially competing on that score with plant-based products — and interesting flavors, which appeal to millennials and more adventurous beverage consumers.