Researchers such as Euromonitor, Mintel and SPINS have pointed to increased sales of non-dairy plant milk in Europe and the US since 2016, while early 2018 reports suggest US dairy farmers found themselves with a surplus of organic cow's milk in the last few years, as shoppers opt for plant-based alternatives like almond milk.

SPINS US household panel data has found that some core organic milk consumers have turned away from organic milk purchases over the last three years.

In 2016-17, US sales increased for shelf-stable and refrigerated dairy milk alternatives such as almond, soy, coconut, rice and oat milks, while nut milk from US producers Elmhurst Milked (the former dairy milk producer) and Mariani Nut Co are driving sales of nut milk based on walnuts, hazelnuts, cashews, almonds, and now peanuts (Elmhurst).

Mintel Food & Drink reports that non-dairy milk sales have seen steady growth over the past five years, growing an impressive 61 percent since 2012, and are estimated to reach US$2.11 billion in 2017.

"While almond (64 percent market share), soy (13 percent market share) and coconut (12 percent market share) remain staples in the category, new non-dairy milk types are sparking excitement as consumers look to diversify their non-dairy milk repertoire," Mintel says.

"Indeed, new varieties have experienced fast growth in popularity as two thirds (63 percent) of those who have purchased pecan milk say they bought more pecan milk in 2017 than in 2016, while 58 percent of quinoa milk consumers say they bought more quinoa milk in 2017 than the year prior.

“Almond, coconut and soy milk remains the most popular types of non-dairy milk, while other nuts and plant bases are gaining traction, including pecan, quinoa, hazelnut, and flax milk."

"We predict that new plant bases such as cashew and rice will allow new entrants into the non-dairy milk category to eventually surpass the soy milk segment, one of the first non-dairy milk segments to really take off with consumers,” says Megan Hambleton, beverage analyst at Mintel.

"Overall sales in the dairy milk category have fallen 15 percent since 2012, reaching an estimated $16.12 billion in 2017."

Growth for refrigerated & shelf-stable plant milk

As organic milk suffers due to shoppers seeking alternative options, in 2017, refrigerated milk was one of the fastest-declining beverage categories, with SPINS data showing a 1.5 percent year-over-year sales decline to a $13.2 billion market at the end of last year.

"In contrast, SPINS saw a 4.1 percent sales increase in refrigerated plant-based milk to a $1.6 billion market and a 2.0 percent increase in shelf-stable plant-based milk to a $224.6 million market in the same time span," the researcher says.

"However, the dollars per buyer and trips per buyer for refrigerated milk has steadily decreased over the past two years, aligning with SPINS’ observed sales trends.

"Across the board, SPINS’ and IRI’s household panel data shows that fewer of these households have purchased organic milk over the past year, and two out of three of these consumer segmentations (Enlightened Environmentalists and True Believers) have spent fewer dollars per buyer and spent fewer dollars per trip."

SPINS is also finding a year-over-year dollar and buyer declines for natural refrigerated plant-based milk products as a trend for these consumer segments, except for True Believers, who spent 4 percent more dollars per buyer year over year.

"However, many dairy alternatives are offered in shelf-stable form, and we’re observing volume and dollar growth among this subset of products," SPINS says.

"It’s likely that a portion of the core natural and organic consumers are trading from organic milk to shelf-stable plant-based milk options. And in 2018, more of them are likely switching at least some of their purchases to refrigerated plant-based milk options as new iterations arrive in the marketplace (one of the latest being pea milk), while new options from brands like Bolthouse Farms and Ripple are grabbing attention in the refrigerated case."

SPINS adds that many natural consumers purchase dairy and plant-based milk for use in cooking and baking preparations, and as standalone beverage choices.