A Primer on Alternative Milk Options

Move over skim. Whether it’s for environmental reasons, taste or people being more tuned into their own lactose intolerance, every year, more and more Americans opt for dairy-free milk alternatives. In fact, plant-based products now account for 13% of total milk sales in the U.S.

For foodservice operators (especially coffee shops) offering a variety of alternative milks is a great way to attract new health-conscious customers, as well as upsell your current ones. Consumers expect to pay anywhere from 25 to 75 cents more for a single serving of alternative milk when they’re away from home, and they’re usually more than happy to do it.

While alternative milk can be made from just about any nut, grain or legume, here are the four nondairy milk options you’re most likely to see (and customers are most likely to expect) on a beverage menu in 2019.

OAT MILK

Oat milk is gaining a bit of a cult following among alternative milk drinkers. Baristas like it because it does not overpower the espresso in a latte, though it does not always foam well due to a lack of proteins.

Why People Drink It: Oat milk is one of the creamier alternative milk options, and is naturally slightly sweet.

Try this recipe: Caramel Cold Brew

Why They Might Not: Some consumers may be wary of oats that may have been produced in a facility that also processes gluten. Anyone on a grain-free diet like keto or paleo will avoid grains in any form (even milk).

ALMOND MILK

Almond milk is currently the most popular alternative milk product with 64% of the plant-based milk market share. The “milk” is made by blending almonds with water then straining the liquid.

Why People Drink It: As long as it’s not loaded with sugar, almond milk is a low-calorie alternative milk with a slightly nutty, but mostly neutral taste.

Why They Might Not: Consumers may shy away from almond milk for one of two (somewhat conflicting) reasons. The first is sustainability, or lack thereof. More than a gallon of water is needed to grow a single almond, and most of the almonds grown in the United States come from California, a state often plagued by drought. On the other side, anyone who’s looked at the back of a carton of this dairy-free drink knows the almond content of most commercially available almond milk is pretty negligible, and the recipes mostly consist of water, along with some sugars and preservatives.

Try this recipe: Iced Coffeechata

COCONUT MILK

Coconut milk currently accounts for 12% of the plant-based milk market, and in its purest form, it is made by grating the pulp of a mature coconut.

Why People Drink It: Coconut milk is often lauded as a healthy alternative to dairy milk, and is regularly recommended by dieticians as a “good fat.”

Why They Might Not: Unlike coconut milk found in a can, coconut milk intended for beverages (usually packaged in a carton) is often highly processed and may contain 10 or more ingredients, including quite a bit of sugar.

Try this recipe: IC5C Frappé

SOY MILK

Made from soybeans, soy milk is the original nondairy milk option, at least as far as food and beverage operators are concerned. For years, it was usually the only milk alternative at restaurants and coffee shops, though these days, it accounts for just 13% of plant-based milk sales.

Why People Drink It: In addition to being familiar and readily available, soy milk is a good option for someone who wants a plant-based beverage but may have a nut allergy.

Why They Might Not: With so many nondairy options available these days, many consumers have moved to new alternative milks as a matter of preference. Others may avoid soy milk because of suspected links to endocrine/hormone issues.

Still not sure where to start with alternative milk? Just ask your customers what they would like to see! In addition to surveying your customers in person or on social media, S&D can help you create a successful, profitable beverage program featuring alternative milk products, functional beverages and more.