Milk Brands Are Responding to Changing Consumer Values

March 1, 2023
by David

Sustainability Influences Traditional and Plant-based Milk Categories

Go to any coffee shop today and you can hear the barista rattle off a wide range of milk options—many of them plant-based. Milk, for many consumers, is not the same drink they had when they were growing up. Even a glass of cow’s milk isn’t what it used to be. Milk might be a refrigerator staple, but it’s in the middle of a transformation thanks to shopper values.

When shoppers choose milk, they’re wondering about flavor, nutritional content, health benefits, allergies, and—perhaps most crucially—sustainability. Sustainability’s popularity over the last several years has infiltrated virtually every category, with 39% of consumers citing environmental sustainability as an influence on their food and beverage purchases.

Today, a glass of milk means a lot more to consumers than it used to—and brands have gotten the message. Consumers are concerned about the entire production process, from animal welfare to environmental outcomes. The innovation we’ve seen in milk products over the last 12 months illustrates how much consumers value sustainability and how brands are responding with innovative offerings.

Sustainability Helps Plant-Based’s Popularity

Plant-based has grown beyond a niche selection of products and has established itself as its own exciting space. The overall plant-based milk category saw an 8.4% increase in year-over-year sales. Still, the energy behind its growing audience and product selection is palpable.

These plant-based brands understand the need for aggressive innovation to meet the values of plant-based shoppers, which is why the plant-based milk category saw over 50 new products added to the shelves in the last 52 weeks. While some of the most familiar plant-based milk options saw growth, there was one standout performer: oat milk. Oat milk, a relatively new milk option for mainstream audiences, saw a 29.5% increase in year-over-year sales. That impressive growth rate outpaces both the overall plant-based milk category and the traditional milk category rates.

Meanwhile, almond milk and soy milk saw modest year-over-year sales growth, at 2.8% and 1.1% respectively. These options have a long legacy with shoppers, but they also come with a discussion of their environmental impacts through land and water usage. That could be why almond and soy milk are growing at a slower pace. Still, it’s worth noting that these longstanding players are still meeting the needs of new audiences.  

Traditional Milk Innovates to Meet Consumer Values

The plant-based dairy category is not the same size as animal-derived dairy, which accounts for nearly 5.5 times the dollar sales that plant-based milk does. Yet, traditional dairy manufacturers are taking a proactive approach to retain their customers and giving them a reason to stick with animal-derived dairy. During the last 12 months, the overall milk category experienced an 11.9% increase in year-over-year sales. In that same period, 330 new products hit the shelves in the milk category, and many of them align with sustainable values.

For example, pasture-raised milk products come from cows that are not injected with antibiotics or artificial hormones and have access to open fields for grazing rather than being kept in a confined space all day. Over the last year, milk products labeled pasture-raised saw a 50.3% increase in year-over-year sales. That growth rate outpaces the overall milk category, suggesting that shoppers are seeking out this type of product to support their dollars. 

Similarly:

  • Milk products labeled animal welfare saw a 10.9% increase in year-over-year sales
  • Milk products labeled grass-fed saw a 9.2% increase in year-over-year sales

Some research also points to more health benefits from grass-fed milk products, which allows shoppers to feel good about their health as well as that of animals and the environment. That additional benefit is worth remembering as we watch brands respond to constantly evolving consumer values. Sustainability is undeniably influencing shopper behavior, but consumers still want products that taste good, meet their budget, don’t cause allergic reactions, and all the other priorities that matter to them. Expect to see brands monitor emerging trends with product intelligence so they can adapt quickly to meet consumers where they are at.

Source: SPINS Natural Enhanced and Multi Outlet (powered by IRI) for the 52 weeks ending January 29, 2023. 

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