Sustainable nutrition in plant-based milk: From powdered oats to ‘super sustainable’ spuds, how are brands meeting consumer demands?

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT

Ensuring plant-based milk products respond to human and planetary health needs is no mean feat. GettyImages/MurzikNata
Ensuring plant-based milk products respond to human and planetary health needs is no mean feat. GettyImages/MurzikNata

Related tags: plant-based beverages

What challenges do plant-based milk makers face in responding to human and planetary health? And how do they plan to evolve in the face of changing consumer demands? FoodNavigator investigates.

It is no secret that consumers want ‘healthier’ food and drink products. According to a 2018 survey conducted by L.E.K. Consulting, 93% of consumers want to eat healthy at least some of the time, with 63% trying to eat healthy most or all of the time.

Just last year, these findings were reiterated by a consumer poll commissioned by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in the UK. Eighty-seven percent of consumers said they thought it was important to eat a healthy diet, with 63% agreeing they would like to change their diet to make it healthier.

At the same time, consumers are looking to live more sustainably. That same FSA survey suggested that 73% of consumers believe it is important to buy food that has a low environmental impact, yet just 49% consider their personal diet to be environmentally sustainable.

Underling both these trends is a rise in flexitarianism – or ‘casual vegetarianism’ – whereby consumers actively seek ways to reduce their intake of meat and dairy products.

Plant-based dairy is one category to have exploded in recent years as a result of flexitarian diet choices. According to Future Market Insights, the plant-based milk market is ‘likely to surge’ at a ‘vigorous’ 8.8% CAGR between 2021 and 2031, as consumers increasingly shun conventional milk products for soy, oat, or almond-based alternatives.

The consumer appears to want it all: dairy-free products that are both nutritious and sustainable. How are brands responding?

Selecting a healthy and sustainable alt milk base

One could argue it all starts with the alt milk ‘base’. If consumers are moving away from conventional dairy for health, environmental, and ethical reasons, the decision of which plant-based alternative to use is not made lightly.

Soymilk, considered the ‘classic’ milk alternative, is the most popular plant-based milk offering on the market. In North America, however, almond milk has been the most popular plant-based milk on the market in recent years.

This was also the case in the UK, but oat milk has since taken the lead with sales doubling in the space of one year.

oat drink carlosgaw
For Europe's biggest gluten-free oat miller, Glebe Farm, choosing to working with oats was a 'no-brainer'. GettyImages/carlosgaw

For UK-based plant-based milk brand Glebe Farm, the decision to work with an oat base was a ‘no-brainer’. Based out of Cambridgeshire, Glebe Farm is the ‘biggest gluten-free oat miller in Europe’, co-founder Philip Rayner told this publication.

“We have expertise in all things to do with farming and growing oats, so it was a no-brainer to create oat milk out of the product we already worked with.

“It is a crop that grows well in the UK and supports the British farming community, so it was the most reasonable and sustainable choice for us to have as our plant-based milk.” 

In Germany, Berlin-based Blue Farm is also working with oat milk. However, unlike conventional oat milk brands who tend to sell their offerings in Tetra Pak cartons, Blue Farm is marketing oat-based powder in bags, which consumers then mix with water in the home.

Blue Farm selected oats for three reasons, co-founder Philip von Have explained: regionality, application, and demand. “As a company that has sustainable growth at its core, it was crucial for us to use resources that can be sourced near our production facility in central Europe.”

In terms of functionality, oats are a ‘great allrounder’, we were told, with a ‘pretty balanced’ nutritional profile. They deliver ‘great taste’ that doesn’t overpower’ other complementary products, such as coffee.

“Gladly, the demand for oat milk has significantly increased in the past two years, so we are very happy and confident about our decision to put this resource at the heart of our business.”

Over in Sweden, Veg of Lund is taking a different approach to plant-based milk. The start-up is selling a plant milk developed by developed by Professor Eva Tornberg at Lund University. Coined ‘DUG’, the plant milk is made from the humble potato.

“Potatoes don’t need much to grow at all, making them a super sustainable crop, which is why DUG’s climate footprint is a whopping 75% lower than cow’s milk,” ​marketing and communication manager Anna Rosengren told this publication.

Growing potatoes is also twice as land efficient as growing oats and uses 56 times less water than almonds, she continued. And from a nutrition perspective, DUG is low in saturated fat, and fortified with calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, riboflavin, and folic acid.

Responding to human and planetary needs: The challenges

Ensuring plant-based milk products respond to human and planetary health needs is no mean feat.

Compared to conventional milk, for example, plant-based alternatives tend to naturally contain a lower protein and calcium content. In terms of environmental sustainability, not all plant-based milk varieties are created equal: almonds require more water than any other dairy alternative, using more than 1,500L of water to produce just one litre of milk alternative.

Plant-based drink makers must consider the sustainability of their products, according to Glebe Farm’s Rayner. “While reducing the amount of dairy and meat products that everyone eats and drinks may be better for the environment – the ways that these products are being produced are not all equal in their carbon footprint and may, therefore, have a hidden negative environmental impact.”

From cradle to distribution, Glebe Farm’s oat drink produces less CO2e per litre​ than any other oat drink reporting its carbon footprint in the UK, including Oatly.

“So the biggest challenge for most manufacturers of plant-based milks,” ​Rayner continued, “is to ensure that their own practices and those of their entire supply and production chains are all minimising their carbon footprint.”

oat powder rezkrr
Blue Farm is literally thinking outside the box to sell packets of its oat-based powder. GettyImages/rezkrr

Blue Farm approaches sustainability challenges by literally thinking outside the box. Instead of mimicking products of animal origin ‘too closely’, the company is ‘rethinking’ the milk concept ‘from the ground up’.

“At Blue Farm, we first applied this principle to vegan milk as asked: why does it have to be premixed in a drink carton if it is just plant-base with water?” ​explained co-founder von Have.

“If more brands follow this approach to animal protein replacements, we will see more improvements to the life cycle footprint of many products.”

In terms of health needs, von Have believes the ‘biggest challenge’ lies in nutritional profile. Many consumers replace animal protein 1:1 with plant-based products assuming the nutritional values are similar, he said.

“Hence, we see it as one of the big tasks of the plant-based brand community to roll out products over time that not only taste great but deliver a balanced set of nutrients.”

For Veg of Lund, the main challenge for potato milk brand DUG does not lie in its sustainability or nutrition credentials, but in consumer awareness.

“We feel confident in our product, and we have created the world’s only potato-powered plant-based milk. It is the most sustainable plant-based dairy alternative on the market compared soy, nut, rice and oat-based dairy alternatives,” ​claimed Rosengren.

Are consumers willing to swap out soy or oat milk for a potato-based alternative? “We find that when people try the product, they generally tend to like it. So the more people that we get to the try the product, the better it will be for us and the environment.”

Meeting changing consumer demands

Another challenge lies in responding to consumer demands as they evolve over time.

As we know, many consumers are cutting down on meat and dairy and turning to plant-based alternatives. But on top of that, shoppers are becoming increasingly engaged in combatting food waste.

The only waste produced in the production of DUG is the potato peel, which Rosengren explained is ‘unusual’ for a plant-based product, particularly for those based on oats.

“We also use sustainable packaging, with low plastic content and a low carbon footprint. Still, we are just a start-up and have just begun our journey,” ​said the marketing and communications lead.

Blue Farm is also responding to consumer demand for sustainable packaging. “The majority of customers factor in sustainable packaging and products into their purchasing decisions today,” ​said co-founder von Have.

The ‘main advantages’ of the start-up’s concept lie in its reduced weight and volume compared to other products in its category, he continued, for example pre-packaged oat drinks.

“On top of that we have some basic recycling steps in our production, such as using some waste heat for drying our powder and we are exploring ways or reusing the residuals from our production.”

Von Have continued: “Furthermore, we are now expanding our portfolio of healthier, more nutritional and functional milk replacement products to cater to the increased demand of this category.”

potatoes Tom Werner
Veg of Lund has developed a plant-based milk made from the humble potato. GettyImages/Tom Werner

For Glebe Farm, which says it responds to demand from consumers who want to ‘buy local’, more can always be done.

“Glebe Farm is already ahead of the curve in what we do in terms of sustainability – however there is always room for improvement, and we strive to be a carbon-neutral business in the future,” ​said Rayner.

“We are always looking at further solutions such as biodegradable packaging, creating our own packaging plant in-house, and further renewable energy solutions for the farm.”

For 'part two' of our feature on sustainable nutrition in plant-based dairy, with a focus on plant-based cheese and butter alternatives, click here​.

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