Non-dairy alternatives to good old-fashioned cow milk are spilling out into the mainstream, beyond the customary place in the fridges of America’s lactose-intolerant and vegan consumers. Sure, many still scowl at the taste of any milk that isn’t bovine in origin, but alternatives made from plants have grown to over $1 billion in annual retail sales in the U.S. For instance, at WhiteWave Foods (WWAV), the company behind leading soy milk brand Silk, sales increased 12 percent last quarter. And while the company got its start with tofu in 1977, since March a majority of its alterna-milk sales have been coming from another source: almonds. Sales of its newer almond-milk products grew by more than 50 percent last quarter.
Retail sales of dairy alternatives made from almonds, rice, and coconut milk in the U.S. are now nearly $1.4 billion, estimates Marketresearch.com, and are expected to reach $1.7 billion by 2016.
Something is clearly dampening enthusiasm for drinkable soy. WhiteWave claims that across the plant-milk industry, soy now represents just 35 percent of sales; almond milk, by contrast, has surged to more than 55 percent of the market. Research firm Euromonitor International expects U.S. retail sales of soy milk to fall a further 11 percent this year.
What gives? Well, almond milk contains no saturated fat, has fewer calories than soy, and is rich in vitamin E. Another factor: Soybeans just aren’t hip, says Larry Finkel, director of food and beverage research at Marketresearch.com. “Nuts are trendy now,” he explains. “Soy sounds more like old-fashioned health food, like tofu, and could probably benefit by a reinvigoration of their brand.”
It’s also possible that some consumers remain concerned about research linking soy and breast cancer, even if those claims may be unfounded. The American Cancer Society says soy is fine in moderation.
In the first half of the year, meanwhile, WhiteWave sold $305.9 million of plant-based drinks and foods such as yogurt in North America. The company says it now has 75 percent of the soy milk market and 52 percent of sales for almond milk, amid growing competition from such brands as Blue Diamond’s Almond Breeze and from private labels. Consumers are into drinkable plants now, and manufacturers are rushing to milk the trend for all its worth.