How the wellness movement spoiled milk’s healthy reputation
The unstoppable rise of alternative milks – and a €14 billion industry from juicing oats and nuts
Globally, the plant milk industry is estimated to be worth $16bn. Photograph: Getty Images
In the spring of 2018, New York was gripped by a sudden, very particular and, for some, calamitous food shortage. Gaps appeared on grocery shelves. Coffee shops put out signs, turning customers away. Twitter and Instagram brimmed with outrage. The truly desperate searched from Williamsburg to Harlem, but it seemed undeniable: New York was out of oat milk.
It wasn’t just New York, in fact. The entire US was suffering from a shortage of Oatly, a Swedish plant milk whose rapid rise from obscure digestive health brand to the dairy alternative of choice had caught even Oatly by surprise. Since its US launch in 2016, Oatly had gone from supplying a handful of upscale New York coffee shops to more than 3,000 cafes and grocery stores nationwide. The company had ramped up production by 1,250%, but when I spoke to CEO Toni Petersson in late summer, they were still struggling to meet demand. “How do we supply when the growth is this crazy?” Petersson said.
Fortunately, when it comes to milk, in 2019 there is no shortage of alternative alternatives. Visit your local supermarket and you will find a refrigerated aisle overflowing with choice: almond milk, hazelnut milk, peanut, tiger nut, walnut, cashew - and that’s just the nuts. Coconut, hemp, spelt, quinoa, pea. Train stations are filled with ads for new plant milks - or rather, “mylks” (EU law prevents dairy alternatives from using the word milk if it isn’t produced by a lactating mammal). Cookbooks dedicate entire chapters to blending and straining your own. Sainsbury’s now stocks around 70 different options. “People are just looking at every nut that exists and seeing if they can squash it into a milk,” said Glynis Murray, one of the owners of Good, which squashes hemp seeds into oil and milk.
It seems unthinkable now, but as recently as 2008, alternatives to cow’s milk largely meant soya. For anything else, you’d need to scour health-food shops for drab, clinical-looking, long-life cartons of rice milk buried in the back with the other digestive aids. “It was the deathly aisle,” said John Schoolcraft, Oatly’s global creative director. “It was just for people who were lactose intolerant [OR]had an allergy to milk; vegans, vegetarians - people who, at that time, were on the fringe of society.”
Plant milks are no longer fringe. Just over one in 10 of Pret a Manger’s hot drinks in the UK are ordered with dairy alternative milks (organic soya milk or organic rice-coconut milk). According to research firm Mintel, UK plant milk sales have grown by 30% since 2015, buoyed by a surge in vegan and vegetarian diets. In the US, nearly half of all shoppers now add a plant milk to their baskets. Globally, the industry is estimated to be worth $16bn (€14bn).
Meanwhile, milk’s reputation as a healthy food is under threat from anxieties about bovine antibiotics, animal cruelty and the industry’s environmental impact, as well as increased diagnosis of lactose intolerance. Teenagers now consider cow’s milk less healthy than plant milk alternatives, a development the former chairman of Dairy UK, David Dobbin, called “a demographic time bomb”.
“Consumers are really not sure about the dairy industry,” Caroline Roux, a dairy analyst at Mintel, told me. “They’re not convinced these products are good for them any more.”
But the plant milk boom is, as one entrepreneur told me, “way bigger than just switching your milk”. To converts, almond and oat milk are the next wave in a fundamental shift towards a more conscious, sustainable way of living. To critics, they’re little more than cleverly marketed nut juice with additives - a symptom of everything that’s wrong with modern food culture. And so a strange battle has emerged, between an industry trying to replace something it says we don’t need in the first place, and dairy, a business that for a century sold itself as the foundation of a healthy diet, while ignoring the fact that most of the world does just fine without it.
We are all born milk drinkers. Babies’ guts produce the enzyme lactase, which breaks down lactose, the sugar in breastmilk (and cow’s milk), into the simpler sugars glucose and galactose. But for the majority of humans, production of the enzyme lactase plummets after weaning. “From a human perspective - no, to go further than that, from a mammalian perspective - the norm is to be able to tolerate your mother’s breast milk, and then as you get past infancy, to stop producing lactase and become lactose intolerant,” said Adam Fox, a consultant paediatric allergist at Guy’s and St Thomas’s hospitals, and one of the UK’s leading food allergy experts. “Then you’ve got a small group of humans that have a mutation which means they maintain production of lactase into adulthood. Northern Europeans, the Masai [in east Africa], some Arab groups as well. But that’s the exception, not the rule.”
That schism between milk-drinkers and the rest - a series of independent genetic mutations - appears to have occurred about 10,000 years ago, around the time humans were domesticating farm animals. It is the reason that in countries such as the UK, Sweden and Ireland, more than 90% of adults can drink milk without suffering any ill effects, but worldwide, more than two-thirds of all adults are considered lactose intolerant. For lactose-intolerant people, a glass of milk can induce bloating, stomach pains and diarrhoea. (Lactose intolerance should not be - though often is - confused with cow’s milk allergy, an immune response to the proteins in cow’s milk that affects around 1% of UK adults.)
Even in northern Europe, milk as we know it is a recent phenomenon. Fresh milk, left unrefrigerated, spoils quickly and can harbour a variety of deadly pathogens, including E Coli and tuberculosis. For most of history it was either consumed within moments of milking, or processed as cheese or yoghurt. Few drunk milk in its liquid form. “The Romans considered it a sign of barbarism,” said Mark Kurlansky, author of Milk! A 10,000-Year Food Fracas. “The only people who drank milk were people on farms, because they were the only ones who could get it fresh enough.” (Even then, cow’s milk was considered inferior to alternatives such as goat or donkey.) In the 19th century, “swill milk” - so called because cows were fed the filthy runoff from inner-city breweries, turning their milk blue - was linked with thousands of infant deaths. Only in the early 20th century, with the introduction of mandatory pasteurisation - in which milk is heated to kill off any bacteria before bottling - did milk become safe enough for most people to drink regularly.
It was the first world war that ultimately aligned political forces behind the dairy business. In Britain, rationing meant food was limited, and child malnutrition was rife. The emerging field of nutritional science identified milk - with its high protein content and newly discovered “vital amines”, or vitamins - as a potential solution. Thanks to government price controls, milk was one thing not in short supply. Soon, “consumers everywhere witnessed a snowfall of propaganda documenting the miracles worked by milk”, writes Deborah Valenze in Milk: A Local and Global History. Milk became the original superfood: a boundless source of calcium, protein and vitamins. In 1946, Clement Attlee and Harry S Truman’s governments both passed measures to ensure milk was available free with school meals. Industry alliances like the UK’s Milk Marketing Board embarked on campaigns to enhance milk’s image. More recently, in the US, the Got Milk? campaign showed celebrities from Beyoncé to Kermit the Frog with milk moustaches. The message was clear: if you wanted your children to grow up big and strong, they needed to be drinking milk.
The notion of milking plants is not new. In China, soya milk has been made since at least the 14th century, most commonly as a step in making tofu. The earliest written mention of almond milk appears in a Baghdadi cookbook from 1226, the Kitab al-Tabikh. “If you look at Medieval recipes, they will often give you a choice between milk or almond milk,” said Mark Kurlansky (whose best-seller Cod: A Biography, launched an entire genre of food microhistories).
In the west, until recently, almond and soya milk remained relatively unknown, except by vegetarians and the odd eccentric (Henry Ford, of the car company, was an early soya evangelist). In 1956, the Plantmilk Society was established in London by Leslie Cross, then vice-president of the British Vegan Society, a nascent group of animal rights activists. Cross, who particularly objected to the cruelty of the dairy industry, set about trying to find a dairy replacement using crops that could be grown in Britain.
“The big issue originally was: how do you get a protein in a liquid that can emulate dairy milk?” said Adrian Ling, whose father, Arthur, was chair of the new organisation. Photos from the time show the smiling pioneers in white lab coats examining many glasses of questionable opaque liquids. Eventually, they settled on the soya bean. “It was a very small market - a few hundred people,” said Ling. “They lost a lot of money.”
In 1981, Belgian food tech Philippe Vandemoortele used a new packing technology, the sterile Tetra Brik, to sell soya milk. “I started in a garage with pots and pans, a grinder. I was young, and very naive,” Vandemoortele, now 73, told me. He called his soya milk Alpro. The local supermarket refused to stock it. “The buyer tasted my product, and he said: ‘Whoa. It’s awful!’” But Vandemoortele persisted. Today Alpro is owned by Danone, and in 2017 had a turnover in excess of £183m.
Soya’s real break came in the late 90s, when a Colorado soya company, WhiteWave, made a discovery: if they moved the product to the refrigerated aisle alongside the dairy milk, more people bought it. WhiteWave’s new refrigerated soya drink, called Silk, was a sensation. At the same time, Silk, Alpro and others jumped on emerging evidence about the link between high cholesterol and heart disease to market themselves as a healthy alternative. All of a sudden, soya was for everyone.
In today’s crowded market, newcomers require something special to stand out. An Australian milk called Nutty Bruce boasts of “activated almonds”, which is a nod to the current craze for charcoal (superheated and then oxidised, “activated” charcoal is marketed as a detoxifier), but at closer inspection just means the almonds are soaked in water for slightly longer than usual. A San Francisco startup called Ripple claims to have developed a hi-tech process to isolate the protein in yellow peas without any of the associated flavours or colourings.
Rude Health, launched by Camilla and Nick Barnard in 2005, started out selling muesli, but quickly grew into a small health food empire. It got into plant milks in 2013, selling three flavours: oat, brown rice and almond. Today, it sells 10 kinds. Almond makes up around two thirds of all plant milks sold, but it is suffering its own reputational crisis. One issue is environmental: it takes 4.5 litres of water to grow a single almond (technically not a nut, but a seed). In California, which grows eight in 10 of the world’s almond crop, almond growing consumes an estimated 10% of the entire water supply - a controversial issue in a state often afflicted by drought.
In 2012, when Petersson took over as CEO of Oatly, almost nobody had heard of oat milk outside Sweden. The company was founded in 1994 by Rickard Öste, a researcher at the university of Lund. “It’s a really good crop. You can grow oats everywhere,” said Petersson. “It has carbs, it has fat, it has protein and it has fibre.” Compared to oat milk, he said, almond is just “flavoured plant juice”.
Petersson set about reinventing oat milk’s image. He hired John Schoolcraft, a marketing and advertising executive whose concept was simple: “If you’re not lactose intolerant, why would you notice our product?” The pair redesigned its packaging, ditching its previous generic, 1990s aesthetic for a brash, millennial-friendly redesign: Oatly was restyled as Oat-ly! and the side of each carton displayed one of more than 80 messages written by Oatly staff, which congratulated readers on being part of the “post-milk generation” and, only semi-ironically, joining “the cult”.
Oatly’s real masterstroke was the creation of its Barista Edition. Most plant milks split in hot drinks and don’t foam like cow’s milk (the problem is the plant proteins). There, Oatly has an advantage: it foams, and the taste of oat is mostly masked by the coffee. Petersson and Schoolcraft ignored supermarkets and targeted coffee bars in the hip neighbourhoods of Brooklyn in New York and Shoreditch in London. “The volume comes from retail, but the demand is created in coffee shops,” Petersson explained.
“It blew my hair back,” said Stuart Forsyth, a former barista and the co-founder of vegan coffee brand Minor Figures. “Oatly made oats sexy.”
Whether or not plant milks really are a healthy substitute for cow’s milk is a matter of fierce debate, and not an inconsequential one. In June 2017, a Belgian couple were convicted of unintentionally causing the death of their seven-month-old baby, after feeding him oat and quinoa milks instead of infant formula. The parents, who ran a health-food shop, believed the child was lactose intolerant and sought the advice of homeopaths rather than seeking medical attention.
Much of the debate revolves around whether or not plant milks should be fortified with additional vitamins to better imitate cow’s milk. Oatly fortifies its product according to WHO guidelines. Rude Health doesn’t. “The minute you start fortifying, you’re pretending it’s milk,” Camilla Barnard told me. “I don’t want to do that. It feels dishonest.”
What most plant milks are desperate to tell you is what they don’t have in them. Dairy-free; sugar-free; soya-free; gluten-free; GMO-free; bisphenol A-free - in some cases, the “free from” declarations are actually longer than the ingredients list. It’s the inevitable culmination of today’s anxious eating culture: we’ve gone from buying foods on the merits of their ingredients, to buying them on the basis of what’s left out.
“No one is necessarily drinking milk for the nutritional benefits of it,” said Tamara Arbib of Rebel Kitchen. “When you’re an adult, you’re having it because you want something creamy in your drinks.” It is true that our postwar worries about child malnutrition have been replaced with fears about childhood obesity. And the two-thirds of the world that can’t drink milk aren’t suffering from osteoporosis or rickets; in fact, China and Japan have lower rates of these conditions than Europe.
But the plant milk boom is not really about nutrition. Nor is it the first wave of a shift towards ethical, plant-based living - much as we need it. “Those other things might be on people’s lists, but they’re secondary selling characteristics,” explained Julian Mellentin, director of New Nutrition Business, a food industry analyst firm that has tracked plant milk’s rise. He pointed out that 90% of plant milk buyers still purchase other dairy products, like cheese and ice cream, both of which are still growing. The forces driving us towards plant milk are really something bigger: a manifestation of a collective anxiety that something is wrong with our bodies. That we aren’t as healthy and happy as we could be - or perhaps, should be - and something, or someone, must be to blame.
“There’s a lot of people discovering dairy intolerances and gluten intolerances and that kind of stuff, but actually I think what you’re looking at is much more intolerance to the life we’ve been living,” said Arbib.
- Guardian Service 2019