Milk to Mylk: The Growing Popularity of Plant-Based Milk Alternatives

By Madeline ChungBusiness, Cycle 12, Fall 2023


When you stroll through the dairy section of your local grocery store, you can’t help but feel overwhelmed by the number of milk alternatives available these days. Selecting your milk product was a simple task, the hardest decision being what fat percentage to choose from- whole, two percent, or low-fat. But nowadays, the options have expanded to fill shelves stocked with cow, almond, oat, cashew milk, and more. What used to be an easy decision has become more complex with the growing popularity of plant-based milk alternatives, also known as PBMAs.

Over the past few decades, the average consumer has incorporated more plant-based food into their diets (Clem, 2021). Changing consumer preferences causes a shift in consumption of plant-based milk.

What Are PBMAs and How Popular Are They?

Plant-based milk alternatives, PBMAs, are non-dairy beverages derived from plant milk. They are separated into four main categories: grain, legumes, seeds, and nuts (Sethi, 2016). Among the most recognizable are almond, soy, and oat milk. The milk-making process begins with soaking the desired plant in water. Then, the soaked plants blend down into a creamy paste. The mixture gets strained through a fine mesh sieve to separate the liquid and solids. This process leaves you with flavored, sweetened plant milk ready for consumption.

Although PBMAs have been around for a while, their popularity has skyrocketed since the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 2010, only 1 in 5 households in the U.S. purchased PBMAs, but just six years later, that number rose to 1 in 3 households (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2023). In addition, almond-based and coconut-based milk products increased by 149% between 2012-2017 (Rimes, 2020). The graph above visualizes the growth in per capita revenue of plant-based milk in U.S. dollars from 2014 to 2027. The 127% increase in per capita revenue from 2014 to 2027 shows the impressive growth trajectory of the industry in the past and the future (Statista, 2021). Over the past decades, the impeccable growth in the PBMA market alludes to the growing demand and interest in society.

There are various reasons for these changing consumption patterns from dairy to plant-based milk. Many consumers take into account the environmental benefits and sustainability. Another cause is changing consumer demographics and preferences. More people turn toward milk alternatives for various reasons, such as opting for a plant-based diet and developing milk insensitivities. To capitalize on the growth, PBMA companies like Ripple use effective marketing strategies to capitalize on the trend of opting for a more eco-friendly alternative.

Main Cause #1: Environmental Benefits

Many have switched to plant-based milk because consumers want to live a more sustainable lifestyle and reduce their carbon footprint (Kim, 2023). According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, livestock produces 14.5 percent of all global greenhouse emissions (Gerber, 2013). Since PBMAs are less environmentally intensive, especially regarding greenhouse gas emissions and water usage, many are making an environmentally conscious decision to switch to PBMAs.

Cattle are the backbone of the dairy sector and release a lot of methane and carbon dioxide, significant contributors to climate change. They are ruminant animals and ferment the digested food stored in their stomachs. This fermentation process creates greenhouse gasses, expelled through belches (CLEAR Center, 2019). Due to cattle’s high methane emissions, milk alternatives are a less environmentally intensive surrogate because plant-based sources don’t release high levels of greenhouse gasses as cattle do. A University of Oxford study revealed that a glass of plant-based milk produced three times less greenhouse emissions than a glass of dairy milk (Poore, 2018). Decreased CO2 emission aids consumers’ decision to switch to PBMAs as a more sustainable option. The reduced CO2 emissions of milk alternatives are a crucial factor in consumers’ decision to switch to plant-based options (Rombach, 2023).

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions isn’t the only environmental benefit of plant-based milk. Water usage is another essential sustainability aspect. In comparison to cow’s milk, PBMAs are much more water-efficient. Compared to dairy milk, soy milk used 64% less water than in cow’s milk production (Grant, 2018). The large amount of excess water now available from the PBMA production process can help address the global water crisis and other water shortage-related problems.

While PBMAs are not the only solution to climate change, they are a step in the right direction. This one small decision to switch to plant-based milk has a significant effect on the environment as it reduces the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted into the atmosphere, and streamlines a more water-efficient process to produce milk. Consumers have become more environmentally conscious and turned to PBMAs because they are a more sustainable choice. Since consumers want to be more climate-conscious, the demand for less environmentally intensive products like PBMAs has risen over time, thus growing the clientele in the milk alternatives market (Bounfantino, 2022).

Main Cause #2: Changing Consumer Demographics

The rise of veganism over the past decade has caused people to eliminate animal products and turn to plant-based alternatives (Sexton, 2022). Those who adopt a vegan diet do so because of ethical and moral reasons, such as standing against animal cruelty (Brouwer, 2022). This lifestyle restricts the consumption of animals and the use of animal products, so you may opt for PBMAs because they are a animal-friendly substitute. This market provides vegans with many options to choose from that replace the traditional cow’s milk. This shift in consumer behavior has prompted the growth of the milk alternative market. The demand for plant-based products has grown significantly, especially when plant-based food alternatives provide a key nutritional source in vegan diets (Lee, 2023).

Those with milk allergies also make up a good portion of the consumer demographic of this market. Cow milk allergies are food allergies where the immune system overreacts to the proteins in cow milk, particularly affecting infants and young children. According to the FDA, almost 1 in 20 Americans report having a cow milk allergy, estimated at roughly 15.5 million dairy-restricted diets (Grant, 2018). The plant-based milk lacks the proteins in dairy milk and makes a safe alternative for those with a milk allergy. The wide variety of milk alternatives allows millions of Americans with milk allergies to drink an alternative beverage that mimics the taste and texture of cow milk and provides consumers with similar nutritional benefits of milk without any risk of an allergic reaction.

Another group in this market is high-income families. Income is an essential factor to consider when examining the consumer demographic of the plant-based milk alternatives market because milk alternatives tend to be more expensive than dairy milk. In a study by Dong and Hayden, the findings showed that higher-income and college-educated households without children exhibited a greater demand for plant-based alternatives (Hayden, 2023).

There are many different aspects when analyzing the consumer demographics of this market. The majority of consumers are lactose intolerant. When someone is lactose intolerant, the lactase enzyme can’t properly digest the milk sugar, lactose, present in dairy milk. 30 to 50 million lactose-intolerant Americans turn to milk alternatives because the plant-based makeup of this beverage does not contain lactose (Boston Children’s Hospital, n.d.). The inability to properly digest lactose is an evolutionary process, and as time passes, more people develop lactose intolerance (Evershed, 2022). The consumer pool will grow as more people develop an intolerance to cow milk. Changes in consumer demographics are essential reasons behind the growing popularity of PBMAs. Many key factors, including lifestyle choices and income level, impact product consumption decisions. These factors are constantly evolving but help to explain the growing demand for plant-based milk.

Main Cause #3: Marketing strategies

Marketing is a crucial component to the success of a product. As you’re perusing down the dairy aisle, packaging design can subconsciously affect your decision in a split second and influence you to add that item to your cart (Zaltman, 2003). Advertising PBMA products with health claims is critical to helping consumers differentiate PBMAs from dairy milk, as companies establish unique features and benefits of the product that entice consumers. Rimes’ study focused on identifying how specific labels can influence consumers’ perceptions. Phrases like “No steroids were used during production of this beverage” and “Contains no bioengineered ingredients” were found to have positive associations with consumers (Rimes, 2020). These strategies target those wandering down aisles and are either curious about trying a new product or unsure of what to buy. Here is an example of a PBMA company, RIPPLE, advertising their product. They’re marketing their plant-based milk as a healthier alternative to dairy milk, backing it up with nutritional claims like “50% more calcium than dairy milk” and targeting allergen-sensitive and health-conscious consumers. Effective marketing strategies make consumers more susceptible to purchasing their products. PBMA companies, like RIPPLE, have successfully implemented advertising strategies that draw in more sales and new, curious consumers.

As more people become health-conscious, advertising the health benefits of PBMAs to a health-conscious audience increases awareness and consumer compatibility with a product. A study by Badruddoza showed that the bandwagon effect could increase sales (Badruddoza, 2020). Companies are playing off the changing demographics as they realize that more and more are becoming more health conscious. With that, companies’ marketing strategies play a crucial role in the success of a product as they help to seek new consumers, differentiate the product from a saturated and crowded marketplace, and drive sales and revenue overall.


Society is constantly changing, which affects our consumption patterns and behaviors. Through data analysis of already published studies on plant-based milk substitutes, we could see how the environmental benefits of PBMAs alter consumer perceptions and purchasing patterns, especially for the growing number of environmentally conscious consumers. As climate change and global warming continue to become urgent problems, the demand for this market will grow as consumers become more ecologically aware. Changing consumer demographics impact the popularity of plant-based milk. Consumers are opting for these products as a more humane alternative, incorporating them into their plant-based diets and wanting to be more health conscious. Marketing influences consumer decisions to purchase plant-based milk. Companies are marketing their products to reflect the changing societal demographics to boost the products’ success and receptiveness to the general public. It is of the utmost importance that companies continue to differentiate the unique features of their plant-based milk from regular milk to draw a new consumer base.

The rising popularity in this growing market speaks to a more significant trend of societal changes. These minor changes in preferences, like the switch from cow to plant-based milk, create a ripple effect in the economy, altering economic development and market success. Society is inconsistent in preferences and demands, reflecting dynamic societal attitudes and values changes. The PBMA market is an excellent example of how the economy reacts to changing societal values, like demographic changes, which increase the popularity of a new market and hurt the growth of current needs. Thus, the success of the plant-based milk alternatives comes from changing societal factors that have curated the right conditions for the PBMA market to grow.




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Madeline Chung