Rude Health is not ‘anti-milk’, nor is it attempting to replicate conventional dairy with its plant-based alternatives. Rather, the London-based brand wants to provide an appealing alternative to conventional dairy capable of standing on its own.
Plant-based ingredients can do so much more than mimic milk, co-founder and brand director Camilla Barnard told FoodNavigator. “We’re not offering milk; we’re offering something you can use in the same way as milk.
“But in terms of taste and nutritional profile, it’s completely different. And we celebrate that.”
Plant-based milk: a strategic and ‘hugely successful’ move
Rude Health was founded by Barnard and then-husband Nick in 2005. The aim was, and still is, to make healthy eating a celebration, not a sacrifice, Barnard explained. “We wanted to encourage positive relationships with healthy food.”
Initially launching with muesli, Rude Health has since expanded its breakfast cereal range, stepped into snacks, and in a strategic move that has more than paid off, entered the plant-based milk alternative category.
The shift felt organic, according to the co-founder, who was already using many of the same ingredients in Rude Health’s breakfast cereals. “It felt like a very obvious next step. But we didn’t know it was going to be the thing that really made us. It has been hugely successful.”
Having first launched into plant-based milks in 2013, Rude Health is now ‘definitely’ best known for these products. The range include milk alternatives made from almonds, oats, brown rice, coconut, hazelnut, and tiger nut, to name but a few.
“That was 10 years ago, and it was launching into milks that really made the difference.”
Addressing the plant-based slowdown
For the vast majority of the 10 years that Rude Health has been commercialising plant-based milk alternatives, the category has been ‘growing really nicely’, said Barnard. “But now, growth has slowed.”
In this way, similarities can be drawn between plant-based dairy and plant-based meat.
So far, drops in plant-based sales have most publicly focused on the plant-based meat sector. In recent months, it was reported that revenues for US plant-based meat pioneer Beyond Meat had dropped more than 30%, while other plant-based meat makers – including Meatless Farm and Plant & Bean – fell into administration.
Plant-based meat’s rapid growth and more recent struggles have proved ‘fascinating’ for Barnard. “They came out of the gates very fast, with lots of big players with expensive solutions aimed at mimicking meat. There was a surge of initial interest…but the repeat rates and new entrants just aren’t there as much as [industry] thought they would be.”
The plant-based dairy scene is different, explained the co-founder. To begin with, plant-based milk alternatives have been around for significantly longer (soya milk is thought to have first been referenced in literature as early as the 14th century).
Further, producers don’t have to ‘engineer’ anything new, Barnard continued. “That’s not what Rude Health is all about. We’re not trying to mimic milk…Why ultra-process something and pretend to be something else?
“It would be such a shame to mimic milk, because it’s got potential to do so much more than that.”
But the approach hasn’t prevented plant-based dairy sales from slowing. And it’s not just Rude Health that has observed this change in the market. Plant-based dairy is undergoing a ‘shakedown’, we were told, which after a period of growth, is ‘inevitable’.
Examples include Nestlé’s plant-based milk brand Wunda, which recently withdrew from UK retail, and Coca-Cola-owned Innocent’s decision to discontinue its line of dairy alternatives in April this year.
Barnard believes Rude Health’s commitment to clean label, or as clean label as functionality requirements allow, will see the brand through the current plant-based slowdown.
Balancing functionality with clean label
Today, Rude Health sells most of its plant-based milk alternatives into retail, but the foodservice market is ‘growing really fast’. Consumers care much more about the ‘milk’ – whether dairy or plant-based – in their coffees than they once did, suggested the co-founder.
“It’s actually very similar to the Fever-Tree story,” she explained, referring to the drinks brand known for drawing attention to the mixer element of an alcoholic beverage, rather than the alcohol itself. Rude Health believes consumers are no longer solely focused on the coffee in a latte or flat white. “If you’re having a latte, 90% of your latte is milk. So it does actually matter what you mix in with your coffee,” Barnard explained.
In 2022, Rude Health launch ‘barista’ versions of its dairy-free milk favourites. The difference between its ‘barista’ and conventional lines is that the former is designed to stop splitting in hot beverages, and has better frothing functionality.
But bringing out barista versions came with new challenges for the health-focused business. “As a principle, we want to make products using ingredients you would use at home. That’s really hard if you want to make a milk alternative that doesn’t split with an acidic coffee, and consistently froths.
“The hilarious thing is that even dairy isn’t consistent. Depending on what the cows have eaten, you’ll get a completely different amount of froth.”
In Rude Health’s regular plant-based milk line, the goal is to use as few, and as ‘clean label’, ingredients as possible. In its coconut milk alternative for example, ingredients include water, rice, coconut milk, and sea salt.
In the barista version, just like its regular version, the goal was to create the required functionality with the minimum amount of added ingredients. The result is a coconut barista offering made from water, coconut, sunflower oil, sea salt, natural coconut flavour, and a natural stabiliser (gellan gum). For the barista versions that contain these added ingredients, as little oil and stabiliser is used as possible, the co-founder explained.
“We want people to be in rude health and ensure we’re doing something worthwhile on every level.”