Plant-Based Milk: Who’s Drinking It and Why
Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults (64%) have tried a nondairy milk alternative.
Almond milk is the fan favorite, but oat milk has grown in favor considerably over the past two years.
Alternative milks are achieving a rare balance between taste and health benefits. This combination underscores their growth and staying power.
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Milk is a refrigerator staple in the vast majority of U.S. households, but it’s not necessarily from a cow.
In 2023, there’s a host of alternatives to dairy milk, from almond to oat to soy, filling out grocers’ shelves and consumers' refrigerators. These options have proliferated to the point that the Food and Drug Administration in February recommended that plant-based alternatives to dairy milk be allowed to keep the word “milk” in their names.
Morning Consult research shows that not only do consumers know the difference, but they’re also intentionally stocking different kinds of milk at home simultaneously. This is especially true of millennials, a key audience driving adoption of plant-based milks.
Half of millennials keep two or more types of milk in their fridge
Because of their different preferences compared with older generations, millennials are often accused of killing categories — but that’s not the case with dairy. Instead, this generation is making room in their fridge for more cartons. Half of millennials said they stock more than one kind of milk, including 22% who said they keep three or more.
Cow’s milk products are most likely to take up space in millennials’ fridges: 44% said they buy whole milk, a higher share than other generations, presumably because millennials are more likely to have young children. But when looking at lower-fat cow’s milk, millennials are nearly as likely to have nondairy milk at home (27%) as they are to have 2% milk (30%).
Almond milk is the clear plant-based favorite
Millennials aren’t the only consumers interested in plant-based milk. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults (64%) have tried a nondairy milk. Almond milk is the leader among plant-based milks, with 7 in 10 calling it their preferred nondairy alternative. That share remains unchanged from previous Morning Consult research conducted in March 2021.
Oat milk, meanwhile, has been climbing the ranks. Two years ago, 19% of nondairy milk drinkers said they most enjoyed oat milk, but that share has climbed 12 percentage points to 31% as of February 2023. Millennials are a key audience driving this growth. The share who favor oat milk is up 15 points, higher than any other generation. While this is impressive growth for just two years, it’s still well below the share of those who prefer the category leader, almond milk.
Dairy milk is still preferred for recipes — but not smoothies
Among those who keep both dairy and nondairy milks in the fridge, the top uses for each are the same: with cereal and as a drink by itself. Cooking and baking are more likely to involve dairy milk, which is more frequently called for in recipes. Some nondairy milks are flavored — take vanilla almond milk, for instance — and thus might alter the taste of a dish when used in cooking and baking.
With the growth of plant-based milks and brands in the category touting their uses, more recipes will start calling for nondairy milks. One recipe category often calls for plant-based milks already: smoothies. Consumers who keep both dairy and nondairy milks in their fridge were 6 points more likely to say they mainly use nondairy milk in their smoothies.
Taste and health are consumers’ top reasons for choosing nondairy milks
There are two clear reasons consumers are incorporating alternative milks into their diets: taste and health. Taste usually dominates consumers’ decisions about food and drink, so it’s notable that, among weekly users, the share who said taste is a major motivator is nearly the same as the share who cited health. Related to health is the widely held belief among those who consume nondairy milk that it is easier to digest, coinciding with a rising interest in gut health.
Sustainability is also part of the equation. People who drink plant-based milk weekly are more likely to see climate change as a critical threat (50% compared with 43% of all adults) and to say that making environmentally friendly purchases is a top priority (33% compared with 22% of all adults). That said, only one-third of frequent nondairy milk drinkers cite environmental responsibility as a major driver compared with more than half who cite taste and health.
As with all products in the food & beverage sector today, value will play a role in the future of plant-based milks, specifically their perceived value relative to dairy milk. For now, the powerful combination of taste and health benefits has earned the category loyal users.