Soya, almond, oat... Whether for health issues, animal welfare or the future of the planet, ‘alt-milks’ have never been more popular. Are we approaching dairy’s final days?
A couple of weeks ago, some eye-catching billboards began appearing around central and east London. Entire tunnels of the underground were plastered with the adverts; the sides of large buildings were covered. On one panel there was a carton (or, in some instances, three) of an oat drink made by a cult Swedish company that favours stark graphics, a bluey-grey colour scheme, and which is a market leader – in a not uncompetitive field – in the tongue-in-cheek promotional messages known as “wackaging”. The adjacent panel, in large, wobbly type, read: “It’s like milk, but made for humans.”
Around the same time, during commercial breaks on Channel 4’s 4oD, there appeared a 15-second clip of a man in a field of oats, playing a tinny 1980s synthesiser and howling: “Wow, no cow!” That guy is Toni Petersson, the 50-year-old CEO of the same oat milk company, and the song, you would not be entirely surprised to learn, is his own composition. “Listen, it’s absolutely terrible, right?” says Petersson, over the phone from Eugene, Oregon. “My creative directors wanted to make some commercials that I was part of. One of them included a song that they wrote, which was even worse. I had no idea; I thought it was going to be shown one time only."
“Milk, but made for humans” reprises a campaign that his company used in Sweden in 2014. That led to a Swedish dairy conglomerate taking the 'oat milk' company to court for vilifying its product. They won the case, the other company was banned from using the line and had to pay around £100,000, but there was a curious collateral effect of the lawsuit. The resulting publicity – stoked by the 'oat milk' company CEO taking out full-page adverts in newspapers – helped the sales of their product rise by 45% in Sweden and made its profits spike.
Petersson, who previously worked in nightclubs and Costa Rican real estate, became CEO of th eoat milk company in 2012. So is he fearful of – or even hoping for – a similar battle in the UK now? “There might be some legal consequences, I don’t know,” he replies. “But am I concerned about it? No, I’m not. It’s just true!” Petersson laughs. “We actually have really, really good lawyers; they really enjoy this too. I mean, who could argue with the fact: ‘It’s like milk, but made for humans?’ How can that be wrong?”
Many people seem to agree with Petersson: another of his company's campaigns calls these folk “the post-milk generation”, and sales of plant-based drinks or “alt-milks”, to use the sassier terminology, are having near-vertical increases. So who are they?
There are vegans, of course, who now make up 1% of the British population (or 600,000 people). Also, those who have a milk allergy or lactose intolerance. The line “made for humans” comes from the observation that we are the only mammals that consume milk past weaning. Around two-thirds of the planet has a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy (though that figure is much lower for people of European extraction). Mark Kurlansky, the author of a recent history, Milk! A 10,000-Year Food Fracas, describes the fact that many adults drink milk as a “defiance of a basic rule of nature”.
But the surge in popularity for alt-milks has many different sources. There are those who are concerned about animal welfare or our perilous environmental situation: recent research found that a quarter of us now consider ourselves “meat reducers”. In October, a major study on our food system published in the journal Nature advised that prosperous countries such as Britain and the US should cut their milk consumption by 60% (and beef intake by 90%).
Then there are people who have never much liked drinking milk, or who don’t buy the health claims that resolutely cling to it. Or maybe they just want to try something different. Oat drinks, which tend to taste quite neutral but still creamy, can often be a gateway for those thinking of converting. Oatly, in particular, dominates the market of specialist coffee shops, especially in Europe and the US. This summer, the New Yorker reported that New York was experiencing a critical shortage of Oatly, which began supplying a handful of coffee shops in the city in 2016 but expanded rapidly to more than 1,000 outlets nationwide. A litre of Oatly was selling for $20, five times the regular price.
I suggest to Petersson that this might have been another publicity stunt: creating scarcity and fanning interest. “Oh, I wish it was,” he says. “I wish we were that clever.”
Beyond oats, the options are almost overwhelming. Rude Health, Britain’s leading organic, dairy alternative brand, began selling drinks in 2013: it started with oat, brown rice and – almost as an afterthought – almond. This turned out to be a sound move; Rude Health’s Almond Drink is its bestselling item in any category and it is estimated that two-thirds of the alt-milk sold in Britain is almond (one of the main drivers, apparently, was Gwyneth Paltrow, who extols its virtues in her recipes and on her wellbeing site Goop). Rude Health now makes 10 drinks, including exotic offerings such as hazelnut and calcao, and tiger nut, which is not actually a nut, but a tuber.
Meanwhile, Innocent – the birthplace of “wackaging” (infantilised, overfamiliar packaging), and since 2013, owned by Coca-Cola – moved into dairy-free drinks earlier this year (its slogan: “You ain’t seen nuttin’ yet”). It has a range of four – almond, oat, hazelnut and coconut – and makes much of the fact that its almond and oat drinks only contain the named ingredient plus spring water and salt.
Several companies make creative use of misspellings and asterisks in their branding: Rebel Kitchen goes for “mylk”; in the US, there’s organic “malk”; while if you live in London, you can have, for example, Pistachio and Sweet Chai M*lk delivered to your door in reusable glass bottles by the M*lkman. The M*lkman is Jamie Chapman, a former photographer who lives in east London and packs his drinks with a market-leading 12% nuts. His pitch: “M*lks to get you off.” (The reason for the subterfuge is last year’s EU court ruling that determined only liquid from animals can be called “milk”. A similar legal kerfuffle in the US resulted in Dr Scott Gottlieb, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, making a memorable distinction in July: “An almond doesn’t lactate.”) It seems only a matter of time before we see the widespread return of the milk, or m*lk, float (electric of course).