An explosion of new products which call themselves milk – particularly nuts and soy – are not making the consumer inroads many of their makers claim.
The dairy industry says only two per cent of Australian households are regularly buying plant-based milk.
But lots more fake milks are in the pipeline, hoping science will provide the breakthrough to replicate actual cow’s milk.
One of them is the Australian startup Eden Brew which is developing animal-free dairy products with the $4 million backing of CSIRO and Australia’s oldest dairy co-operative Norco.
Eden Brew is still fine tuning a process called precision fermentation to mimic cow’s milk.
Others like plant-based meat startup All G Foods has the support of Woolworths to explore new products, which includes a similar precision fermentation process to replicate milk.
Food company Sanitarium claims global sales of non-dairy milk alternatives have more than doubled between 2009 and 2015 to $21 billion, “while dairy milk consumption is on the decline”.
Sanitarium has a large share of the plant-based milk market in Australia with its So Good range.
Dairy Australia says the Sanitarium claim is “technically correct” but not really.
Australians consumed on average 94.4 litres of liquid milk each in the 2020/21 financial year.
This was down three per cent from the previous year and by eight per cent over the past five years.
But Dairy Australia’s senior industry analyst Sofia Omstedt said consumption of other dairy products has remained stable and, in some cases, has increased.
Cheese consumption has been stable over the past five years at 13.4 kg per person per year, while yoghurt consumption has grown by five per cent to 9.5 kg per person per year.
“It is also important to point out that 98 per cent of Australian households still regularly purchase milk,” Ms Omstedt said.
“So, while consumption is down a bit, Australia still has a very high liquid milk consumption from a global perspective.”
Dairy Australia’s human health and policy manager Melissa Cameron also commented on thenutritional differences between cow’s milk and plant-based “milks”:
“Plant-based beverages represent a small share of the drinking “milk” market relative to fresh and long-life cow’s milk. In fact, only 2 per cent of households exclusively buy plant-based beverages,” she said.
“Cow’s milk is an affordable nutrient powerhouse, naturally containing an array of nutrients in a unique matrix that are well absorbed by the body and deliver positive health benefits.
“Plant-based beverages contain a different package of vitamins and minerals which are often added in (through fortification) and in smaller quantities than cow’s milk.”
“The health benefits of dairy foods are well supported by a strong body of scientific evidence, but there is currently limited evidence to demonstrate the health benefits of plant-based beverages.”
Meanwhile, Australian food company Sanitarium has approached the national food regulators wanting to tweak its range of products to add new ingredients to their recipe.
They want the food laws changed so they can add plant sterols to the mix, and then claim the products help reduce cholesterol.
“The inclusion of plant sterols in dairy based products has been permitted for over 15 years in Australia. We are seeking permission to allow plant sterols to be included in plant milks in the same way, providing more choice to consumers seeking to support their heart health,” a Sanitarium spokeswoman said.
Food Standards Australia New Zealand appears likely to approve the use of plant sterols as long as it is made clear on the packaging.
“Sales of plant-based milk alternatives as a category, and each major segment of soy, almond and oat, has been growing steadily over the past decade in Australia and New Zealand driven by an increase in users of these products,” FSANZ says.
“The proposed change will, for the first time provide Australian and New Zealand consumers who are interested in lowering their cholesterol the choice of accessing effective amounts of plant sterols via one serve of plant sterol enriched plant-based milk alternative as part of their diet.”
Late last year the Australian dairy industry called on the federal government to stop allowing plant-based products to misuse and leverage dairy terms.
The Australian Dairy Industry Council also called for the government to stop plant-based products misrepresenting dairy nutrition.
“The issue of plant-based products falsely leveraging the dairy industry is a long-standing problem in this country,” ADIC chair Rick Gladigau said.
At one of the public hearings called during the Senate inquiry into fake food labelling, Mr Gladigau said the Australian dairy industry had extremely strict standards of identity to be able to call a product milk, cheese or yoghurt.
“We follow strict standards of identity for all our products that gives us permission to use those dairy terms, and unfortunately the plant-based products don’t have that,” Mr Gladigau said.
The dairy industry has been advocating for fair labelling and marketing since the 1980s.