oats and milk

The Evolution of Plant-Based Milks

With an impressive 20% growth in 2020, it seems that plant-based milk is solidifying its place in American refrigerators.1 Though almond, soy, and coconut milks are leading the pack, a surge in innovation is keeping consumers engaged—including new ingredients, clever claims, and spin-off products like plant-based whipped creams and new decadent creamers.

Plant-based milk is the most developed of all plant-based food categories globally. According to research from The Good Food Institute, refrigerated plant-based milk is nearly 90% of the category in the US while the rest is shelf-stable.

Why Consumers Are Buying

The proliferation of plant-based milks has made the milk aisle increasingly competitive. However, there may be more to this competition than meets the eye. Mintel reports that 74% of U.S. plant-based milk consumers also purchase dairy milk.3 So why are they buying plant-based? The top reasons are:

  • Health
  • Variety
  • Taste

Health includes protein (in particular plant protein, which has a health halo) and lower calories, as consumers are increasingly checking the nutrition label before buying. Nearly 2 in 5 US consumers indicate they perceive dairy alternatives as healthier for you than traditional dairy.Health also encompasses the shift toward a flexitarian diet. Lactose intolerance is an important driver in as well.

The Rise of Plant-Based Milks

A couple of decades ago, plant-based milks could only be found in shelf-stable aseptic Tetra Pak cartons in the natural foods section like rice and soy milks. But when brands burst onto the scene in refrigerated cartons and was sold next to milk, beverage history was made. 

woman in lab coat

Silk was one of the first to market a refrigerated plant-based milk. Their winning formula—a plain soy milk that nonetheless contained cream-type flavors and a hint of vanilla—gave consumers a reason other than health to purchase plant-based milk. Refrigerated plant-based milks soon flourished, including Almond Breeze Almond Milk, Oat-ly, So Delicious Coconut Milk and Innocent. Plant-based ice creams and yogurts soon followed.

Evolving Tastes

Today, plant-based milks are made from a wide variety of bases to meet consumer demand for taste and variety, including: 

  • Soy
  • Almond
  • Coconut
  • Rice
  • Oat
  • Hemp Seed
  • Flax Seed
  • Pea
  • Cashew
  • Peanut
  • Sunflower Seed
  • Quinoa
  • Hazelnut
  • Pecan
  • Macadamia Nut
  • Barley
  • Tiger Nut
  • Blends

To address consumer interest in health, plant-based milks often include fortifications that create parity with or an advantage over dairy milk. The nutrition label is especially important to plant-based milk consumers. Fortifications may include:

  • Calcium
  • Vitamin A
  • B vitamins
  • Vitamin D
  • Prebiotics
  • ALA Omega-3

Trending Innovations

Some exciting trends underway in plant-based milks include:

  • New Blends – plant only blends like almond/cashew (Silk), coconut milk/coconut water (So Delicious), and pea/sunflower seed/flax seed (Suja) but now dairy-plant blends are on the market (Live Real farms) 
  • Flavorful Creamers – e.g., Danone Honest to Goodness and Coffee Mate Natural Bliss Almond and Oat
  • Clever Claims – e.g., “Made with 11 cashews in every glass” (Elmhurst) and “Nut-Free” (Suja) 
  • Plant-Based Whipped Creams – e.g., Reddi-Whip Non-Dairy in Coconut Milk and in Almond Milk
  • Flax Expansion – e.g., drinkable flax yogurt and single-serve chocolate flax milk (Good Karma)
flower and seeds on table

Looking Ahead

Plant-based milks can be made from countless legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds. However, those that seem poised for takeoff include lupin beans, black sesame seeds, and water lentils (also known as duckweed). Dairy and plant-based milk blends may also have a future, as well as new flavored versions and fortification options, such as amino acids and probiotics. 

Trust our custom nutrient premixes and plant-based solutions to make your nutrition label shine and explore innovative flavor trends to start your next plant-based beverage! 

Frequently Asked Questions

Dairy is the main source of calcium in the American diet, making it the top food group for supporting healthy bones at all ages. Dairy is also a source of high-quality protein, with all the essential amino acids in the right proportions to meet the needs of the body—especially important for muscle building and maintenance for active, sports performance, and aging consumers. Dairy also contains several beneficial bioactive proteins such as lactoferrin, which supports healthy iron levels.

Dairy alternatives such as plant-based milks and plant-based yogurts are often fortified, making them a good calcium source for those with milk allergies or lactose intolerance. Some are also high in plant-based protein. In addition, both dairy and dairy alternatives are often fortified with vitamin D to improve calcium absorption. Dairy/plant-based milk blends are a trend that combine the high-quality protein of dairy with the phytonutrients and lower calories of plant-based milks.

Plant-based milk is made starting from beans (such as yellow peas or soybeans), nuts (such as almonds or cashews), grains (such as oats or rice), seeds (such as flax or hemp seeds), or another whole plant source. The starting material can either be soaked in water, ground into a slurry, and filtered to remove the insoluble fiber, or it can be ground into flour first before removing the insoluble fiber.

Next, water and other ingredients like flavors, sweeteners, vitamins, minerals, and thickeners are added. Finally, the plant-based milk is pasteurized and packaged. Some (like pea milk) are a good source of plant-based protein, while others (like oat milk) are known for their soluble fiber benefits. Manufacturers can also start with optimized ingredients to minimize any bitter plant tastes and ensure the smoothest texture.

Some of the best food sources of vitamin D, according to the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans, are certain types of fish (such as freshwater rainbow trout (645 IU per serving), salmon (383-570 IU), and canned light tuna (231 IU)), as well as raw mushrooms (114-1110 IU), and fortified dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese (85-117 IU).

In fact, most of the vitamin D in Americans’ diets comes from fortified foods and beverages. Today, there is a wide variety of vitamin D-fortified products to help boost intake of this shortfall nutrient—from plant-based milks to breakfast cereals to nutrition bars.


1. Nielsen xAOC, Milk/Dairy Alternatives, 52 weeks ending 12.26.2020
2. The Good Food Institute, Plant-Based Market Overview, January 2020
3-4. Mintel, Dairy Alternatives: Incl Impact of COVID-19 – US, June 2020

Take our poll

Enter your email on the next step to receive the articles as soon as they go live.

Hello! It looks like you’re using Internet Explorer. Microsoft is phasing out this browser, so we are no longer supporting it and some parts of the page may not look right. To enjoy the full experience, we recommend you use one of these browsers: Edge, Chrome, Firefox or Brave.