In the first few weeks of lockdown, the biggest and only panic we had food shopping-wise in our small household was: we need oat milk.
With cupboards and a freezer full of leftovers from supermarket shops past, all we needed were cartons of the cow’s milk alternative to keep us going.
That’s because it’s the only thing my young daughter will drink, alongside water. Despite our best efforts, she has never liked drinking cow’s milk (or formula for that matter).
She has been breastfed and it was a conundrum for a number of months – but that all changed when someone suggested Oatly to us.
Alt-milk, not milk: A number of alternatives to cow’s milk have been around for a while – but oat milk has really taken off in the last year in Britain
We were recommended two specific styles, the barista edition and whole versions. As well as having calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and riboflavin, they taste creamier than other versions on offer because of a higher level of fat.
When she took that first tentative sip that was it: the golden moment. She liked it, a huge worry off our shoulders of what on earth she was going to drink for calcium and other nutrients as she exited baby phase, and entered toddler zone.
Except during the first stages of lockdown, when we struggled to get hold of it in what can only be described as middle-class panic. Supermarket shelves were stripped bare, presumably because it can keep for up to a year in the cupboard.
She has whole milk on her cereal, which she enjoys – we don’t want to her to potentially develop an allergy – but she still refuses to drink it, perhaps it is too heavy, but who knows with toddlers.
The alt-milk scene has exploded in recent years. It has gone hand-in-hand with veganism and vegetarianism, alongside those who are lactose intolerant or are looking to reduce their carbon footprint.
Every week, we have organic whole milk and semi-skimmed delivered – you may have read about it earlier in the year. But alongside our regular cow’s milk, we now also get Oatly from our milkman.
Last week, TV presenter Oprah Winfrey, movie star Natalie Portman and Roc Nation – an entertainment company owned by rap star Jay-Z – were all part of a slab of investors who stuck a multi-million pound sum of money into the Swedish firm, which produces oat milk and other products, like cream and ice cream.
How quickly is the alt-milk scene growing in Britain, who is a typical buyer and why is a legendary New York rapper investing in a Swedish oat milk, which uses mostly water and 10 per cent oat? Consumer Trends takes a look.
Oat milk driving non-dairy sales
Sales of free-from dairy products are up almost 20 per cent annually, according to figures for This is Money from Kantar.
It is now a £650million market in Britain, with alternative milk sales the main part of this, making up nearly two thirds. It is likely to be a billion pound market within the next few years.
The huge driver of this growth over the last 12 months has been oat milk, with sales nearly doubling to a total of £94.3million, compared to £47.8million in the period before.
Orla Wilkinson, analyst at Kantar, tells me: ‘Shoppers have been branching out from traditional dairy products in more numbers than ever before.
‘The popularity of alternative milks plays a major part in this.
Shoppers have been branching out from traditional dairy products in more numbers than ever before.
Orla Wilkinson – Kantar
‘Plant-based milks have been a particular hit and – with the exception of rice milk – all variations of the category are currently growing.
‘Oat milk is the standout star of plant-based dairy and has gone from strength to strength as the fastest growing of all free-from milks.
‘It now accounts for 22.2 per cent of all alternative milk sales – hot on the heels of current market leader soya, which holds 22.3 per cent.’
Children are 400 per cent more likely to have an alt-milk for breakfast now than their parents would have had at their age, according to research from Kellogg’s.
Much of that would come from a boom in choice, along with the fact more parents are likely to have diagnosed lactose allergies or be vegan/vegetarian.
Oat milk is proving popular among Waitrose customers too – sales are up 113 per cent compared to a year ago, the supermarket chain tells me.
Online searches on Waitrose for ‘oat milk’ are up 210 per cent and the search term ‘barista oat milk’ is up 1,517 per cent in the same timeframe, suggesting people are looking to make the swap in their hot drinks first.
The middle-class favourite stocks nine varieties of alternative milk drinks, including oat, almond, soya, rice, coconut, hazelnut, cashew, seed, pea protein alongside specialist barista style drinks.
From next month, it will be selling oat milk from East London firm Minor Figures, who specialise in ingredients to make barista-style coffees.
Milking it: Rap icon Jay-Z is one of those who have invested in Swedish company Oatly, which hsa been around since the mid-90s
Jay-Z and Oprah invest in Oatly
Earlier in the month, Oatly – one of the more familiar names in the alt-milk scene – saw huge investment pour in.
What about the price difference?
A litre – around 1.76 pints – of Oatly is usually £1.80 in the supermarkets.
Two pints of milk (1.14 litres) is 80p at Tesco, or 71p a litre.
UHT milk, a popular early lockdown buy, is 79p a litre and 2 pints of organic milk is 89p, or 78p a litre.
The price of milk at the supermarket also drops if you buy a bigger carton. So, a 4 pint carton – or 2.27 litres – is £1.50, or 66p per litre, almost a third of the cost of oat milk.
The company, headquartered in hip Malmo, on the border with Denmark and Copenhagen, raised $200million from the celebrities mentioned above, and others including investment giant Blackstone Group.
It says it will use the money to expand and build new production factories. This investment has come off the back of sales growth in Britain, mentioned above, but also in the US.
The firm was founded in the mid-1990s – as it says on its carton ‘when it wasn’t very cool to make oat drinks’ – but it has been the last few years in which it has surged in prominence.
Now available in 20 countries, it only entered the US market in 2016 but proved so popular that there were shortages in the supermarkets. In order to cope, it built a factory there in 2018 and will open another this year.
It had $200million in sales in 2019 and believes it can double that by 2021. A large part of this growth could be in China – a huge population in which a millions are believed to be lactose intolerant.
You can see why it proved a popular investment in the recent fundraising drive.
Oatly: The company has grown fast in the last few years – we have it delivered to our door each week from Milk & More
Who is drinking it?
‘The demand for a more sustainable food system is global and growing fast, with much of the shift being led by Millennials and Generation Z,’ according to Oatly.
Buyers are likely to fall into a number of categories: they are lactose (or partially) lactose intolerant; have environmental concerns over cows and methane; are vegetarian or vegan; actually just like the taste; or, like us, buying it for their children.
In the last two instances, it is likely that shoppers buy both cow’s milk and alt-milks, and alternate.
In the US, a country synonymous with cows and meat-based diets, it is believed two in five households purchased an alt-milk in the US last year. And there is no sign that sales of oat milk are going to anything but continue to rise.
Number one: Cow’s milk is hugely popular and it would take some doing or alt-milks to get close to the same level of sales
How does it stack up nutrition wise?
Is oat milk as good for our children, and indeed us, as cow’s milk? As I’m not a nutritional expert, I can’t say. And this can be a loaded question as many vegans will argue we are just not designed to drink cow’s milk, although the science is less certain.
But let’s have a look at the nutritional information given on the cartons.
This is Money assistant editor and consumer journalist, Lee Boyce, writes his Consumer Trends column every Saturday.
It ranges from food and drink and retail, to financial services and travel.
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According to the side of the Oatly carton, a 100ml of the barista style comes with 3g of fat, 4g of sugars, 0.8g of fibre, 1g of protein and 0.1g of salt.
This compares to 3.7g of fat for 100ml of Tesco whole milk, 4.7g of sugar, 0.0g of fibre, 3.5g of protein and 0.1g of salt.
Oatly has 22 per cent of your daily vitamin D in 100ml, 15 per cent riboflavin, 15 per cent of vitamin B12 and 15 per cent calcium.
It is worth pointing out here that most of the nutrients provides are fortified – they are added during manufacturing, rather than occurring naturally.
Oatly also contains rapeseed oil – in fact, it is the third biggest ingredient behind water and oats. Why? Oatly says it’s to ‘achieve the desired nutritional fat content and texture for each product.’
Meanwhile, Tesco whole milk doesn’t contain vitamin D, but does contain 17 per cent of your recommended daily allowance of riboflavin, 36 per cent vitamin B12 and 16 per cent calcium.
Post milk generation: The company has revamped its packaging and slogans in recent years, which has gone hand-in-hand with a sales explosion
How is it made and is it really green?
Many don’t like labelling these products as milk or the thought of how alternatives like this are made.
According to Oatly, firstly it grinds the oats with hot water so that the starch swells. Then it adds natural enzymes that break down the starch, resulting in a liquid consistency with sweetness.
It then removes insoluble fibers to get a smooth product, and add a pinch of salt. It has been developed in a lab and it is not a naturally occurring liquid like cow’s milk, but I can live with that.
Oatly last year added a carbon footprint label to their products in Europe.
By making that data available, it says it ‘enabled consumers to consider the carbon footprint of their food choices before they buy, just as they do with nutritional content.’
I think this is a clever move. For example, the climate footprint on the barista one reads 0.44kg Co2e per kg, sourcing another Swedish firm, CarbonCloud.
But, it’s not all happy ready for alt-milks. According to a University of Oxford study, while emissions for alt-milks are far smaller than for cow’s milk, almond milk and rice milk for example take vast quantities of water to produce.
I think it’s great that alternative milks are being produced for consumers to try. I also think the majority of our dairy farmers do a great job, with early mornings, plenty of love and care for their herds, and I will continue to support them by buying British, organic milk.
Sales of regular milk are above £4billion annually in Britain, with no sign of dropping, suggesting people are enjoying a mix of both.
Having these kind of consumer choices makes it better than ever for vegans, lactose intolerant and those with environmental concerns.
I believe there is a place for real milk and alt-milk on our supermarket shelves and in our fridges.
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