Your order has just been called at your morning coffee shop. Once you arrive at the beverage station, you’re confronted with what seems to be at least 17 options for milk in your coffee. From regular dairy, to oat, almond, and soy, creamer options abound these days, which is good news for vegans everywhere. But not everyone is pleased — namely, the dairy industry.
According to one study by a nutrition expert at the University of Virginia, worldwide sales of non-dairy milk alternatives more than doubled between 2009 and 2015. Today, the non-dairy milk industry is worth over $22 billion and is expected to expand to $53 billion by 2028. Overall, non-dairy options represent over 15 percent of the total dairy market, much to the latter industry’s chagrin.
In response, Britain’s largest dairy company, Arla Foods, launched a campaign in April called “Don’t Cancel the Cow,” which argued that the “rise in cancel culture is playing too much of an influence in the way we make decisions relating to our diets.” The campaign includes research, funded by none other than Arla itself, that connects the rise in veganism among young people to the dairy industry’s decline. Further, in the United States, Big Dairy has been pushing to ban plant milk brands from using the word “milk” to describe their products — claiming that the phrasing “confuses consumers” and can harm children.
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But before you start blaming vegans for canceling the dairy industry, it’s important to note that the history of non-dairy milk goes back a lot further than you may think. In fact, the first documentation of plant milk dates back to 14th-century China, when soya milk, or doujiang, was written about for the first time. By the 17th century, “milk” made from soybeans was a staple in traditional Chinese cooking, and many there drank it hot for breakfast. By 1897, soya milk, called soy milk stateside, had made its way to the United States and was mentioned in several journals, one of which actually included a table comparing the nutritional qualities of soy milk to cow milk.
The dairy industry has taken issue with non-dairy alternatives since as early as 1945. When American entrepreneur Bob Rich developed a soy-based whip topping, he was subsequently sued by various members of the dairy industry, who accused Rich of making an imitation dairy product. Rich’s legal team countered each of the 42 lawsuits with the argument that Rich’s whip topping was not an imitation of a dairy product, but a replacement. The argument was strong enough to win Rich every case, helping to legitimize non-dairy products.
A similar story follows almond milk, which was first mentioned in a Baghdadi cookbook in the 13th century and was a common ingredient in Egyptian cooking by the 14th century. By 1390, the dairy alternative had spread to England and was widely used during Lent as a substitution for dairy milk.
Almond milk arrived in the United States sometime around the 19th century, and its popularity was largely driven by Seventh Day Adventists, a traditionally vegetarian or vegan community. Almond milk quickly gained traction outside the religious group as a substitution for dairy, and, by 2013, sales of almond milk overtook soy milk sales.
Oat milk, on the other hand, was invented in 1994 by brothers Rickard and Bjorn Oeste, whose goal was to create a milk alternative for those with both lactose and nut allergies. They later founded the ultra-popular brand Oatly. Today, there are dozens of oat milk brands on the market, and the industry as a whole was valued at $360 million in 2019 and is projected to exceed $995 million by 2027.
It is true that non-dairy milk alternatives have been exploding in recent years, as suggested by the industry’s growth to date as well as its projected growth. However, it is not likely that veganism is the only reason why traditional dairy sales have been tanking. Among the host of reasons why individuals choose plant-based over dairy milk are health and environmental concerns.
According to health professionals at the University of California, Los Angeles, when compared to one cup of whole-fat cow’s milk, most plant-based milks contain up to 75 percent less fat and are lower in calories. Furthermore, for those who are environmentally conscious, non-dairy alternatives tend to require significantly less land, energy, and water, and their production emits much lower quantities of greenhouse gasses, making them better options for the planet.
While the dairy industry is inclined to argue veganism and environmental consciousness are new phenomenons to blame for dairy’s decline, non-dairy milks have long been used in non-Western countries where vegan and vegetarian diets, as well as living in harmony with the planet, have been common for centuries.