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Plant-Based Dairy: Fad Or Trend?

Cindy Sorensen
Cindy Sorensen

by Cindy Sorensen, Founder and CEO/The Grocery Group

When almond-based “milk” beverages entered the market a few years ago, they took market share away from soy-based beverages. The market then saw an influx of new beverage introductions made with a wide variety of nuts and plants, all hoping to have the same success enjoyed by almond-based beverages.

Up until recently, I believed we were witnessing a fad which would soon wane and be replaced with another food fad, as often happens. But consumers have changed their product preferences faster than ever in history, and they have clearly stated through their words and with their wallets that they are interested in a plant-based diet.

The plethora of plant-based product options across many categories has gained wide-spread acceptance and marketplace success. Fads are short-lived. The plant-based product industry has now reached trend status based on its length of success in the market and its roots in fulfilling what consumers have said is so clearly important to them. 

For many years, consumer research has indicated consumers are very interested in knowing about the production of their food, which includes knowing about the farmer who produced their food, knowing the animals were well cared for in the production of their food and knowing the natural resources were used in a sustainable way. Animal agriculture developed messages to introduce consumers to farmers, show them the exemplary care animals receive, explain sustainability practices and to educate them through science-based research about the nutritional superiority of their products versus other options.

I worked for dairy farmers for nearly 10 years through the USDA dairy farmer checkoff program, and I saw firsthand the care provided to animals and the sustainability practices used by dairy farmers. I will always stand up for dairy farmers and animal agriculture when it comes to defending their on-farm and animal care practices. 

Those messages alone, however, are not enough to keep consumers from migrating to the growing interest in plant-based diets. Consumers have chosen a diet philosophy based on what they believe to be healthier for them, the planet and the animals. This migration to plant-based products is no longer a fad, it is now a trend. 

One of the supporting factors as to why plant-based products have been successful in moving from a fad to a trend is that the manufacturers have created great-tasting products to match animal-based products. This diet fad could never have become a trend had the products not tasted good. 

Plant-based alternative options now are available in the dairy, frozen and meat departments. Even traditional yogurt companies, such as Chobani and Dannon, now make plant-based yogurt. The growth in these products is expected to offset the declines seen in traditional and Greek yogurt.

Consumers will try these products and when rewarded with great taste, they will repurchase them. When I conducted a blind taste test of these products, I failed to accurately identify which was plant- and which was milk-based. Flavor and consistency were equal to that of their traditional counterparts.

These plant-based products have higher price points than traditional and Greek yogurt. Retailers are welcoming these introductions to recoup the declines in dollars and margins the category has recently experienced due to the price commoditization in most yogurt brands and segments. 

Currently, dairy plant-based alternatives are offered in the following categories: milk, butter, yogurt, cheese, coffee creamers and yogurt-type drinks. What’s next? Will this trend become the leader across a multitude of categories? What’s your prediction?

Cindy Sorensen is the founder and CEO of The Grocery Group, which focuses on developing leadership in the grocery industry by supporting professionals in their career development. The Group also develops programs to connect grocery industry professionals to colleges and universities to help attract, recruit and retain a talented workforce in a competitive employment market. Reach Sorensen at [email protected]

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