Why You're So Obsessed With Almond Milk: An Investigation

There is perhaps no greater emblem of the major makeover American food culture has undergone in the past three decades than the fall of dairy and the rise of almond milk.

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In 1999, Hannah Spinrad was a pre-teen figure skater whose favorite pastime was ripping Got Milk? advertisements from the magazines in her Dad’s doctor’s office. She collected them all, starting with iconic figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi’s before moving on to other celebrities like Britney Spears and Joshua Jackson. “I thought of myself as an athlete, even though I wasn’t a great one,” Spinrad recalls now, with a laugh. To go with her Got Milk? obsession (by the way her Bat Mitzvah was Got Milk? themed), she also drank tons of milk growing up, like most ‘90s kids. “My mom was hardcore into milk,” Spinrad says. “As an athlete, it was appealing, I guess, because it was all about strong bones, preventing injuries... you know, just being strong.”
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The Got Milk? Campaign, widely considered one of the most successful advertising campaigns of all time, is a feat of reputational magic. For a while there, it gave a product as boring as cow’s milk a sheen of coolness and vitality. The celebrities who were photographed were always posed as though they were sitting for a fashion editorial or glowing profile, holding their guitars or dribbling a basketball or sitting in a makeup chair getting glammed — all while sporting a hilarious (and looking back, disturbingly thick) milk mustache. The message was clear: Powering these extraordinary humans is this ordinary product that you can drink, too.
Cut to nearly 20 years later, though, and that notion seems embarrassing now, the way ultra low-rise jeans and belly chains do. Spinrad hasn’t had a drop of dairy milk for years, after doing an elimination diet ahead of her wedding. Her “milk” drink of choice these days: Almond, obviously. “I don’t even really like almond milk that much, to be honest,” she says. “It’s just a low-calorie replacement for something that I don’t feel like I need to put in my body. I think there’s just something psychological about calling it milk.”
There is perhaps no greater emblem of the major makeover American food culture has undergone in the past three decades than the fall of dairy and the rise of almond milk. In the 1970s, Americans drank over 30 gallons of cow’s milk per person per year. By 2016, we only drank 18 gallons, and the numbers keep going down. Meanwhile, the almond milk industry is only growing: As of February 2018, almond milk is raking in $1 billion a year, up from $646 million in 2014, a 14% increase, per Nielsen data. Compare that to the next most popular alt-milk, soy, which is only a $245 million business, a 12% decrease compared to four years ago.
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According to internal studies of the non-dairy beverage industry provided by Blue Diamond Growers, we have millennials to thank for this. Not only are millennials the largest consumers of refrigerated non-dairy beverages (with one in two of those born after 1990 buying them), almond milk is our most popular choice.
It'd be easy to say that almond milk is trendy because cow's milk is Bad For Us — and in fact, that's what most almond milk drinkers will tell you. But it’s really not that simple. The bigger source of dairy’s woes is that the way we eat, in general, has changed. Cereal is no longer America’s breakfast of choice, which has had a huge ripple effect across the milk industry. In addition, 32% of Americans now report either food allergies or food intolerances (whether or not they are actually intolerant is another story) and there’s been an increased interest in vegetarian or vegan diets, especially among millennials, Pew data reveals.
The result: Almond milk, and to a lesser extent other alternative milks, are now a staple; something we buy in addition to regular dairy milk, cheese, and ice cream. Data bears this out as well: 90% of non-dairy milk consumers still buy regular milk and dairy products, according to a 2017 industry report from Mintel. This is why, despite the downward trend, dairy remains a $10 billion dollar business. “I still eat dairy desserts, that’s for sure. And I’ll buy milk if I’m going to make a specific recipe or something,” Spinrad says. “But I never buy milk just to have it in the house.”
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All of this despite the fact that just looking at the nutrient profiles of the two drinks, almond milk is nowhere near as nutritious as cow’s milk. “I have definitely noticed there’s just this adamancy for almond milk for not very clear reasons,” says Libby Mills, RD, a Philadelphia-based dietitian and food blogger. “Almond milk is low-calorie, and the modern versions are all fortified with calcium. But with milk you’re getting 8 grams of protein, along with the carbs, plus B vitamins, riboflavin, calcium. You’re also getting potassium, which is hard to get when people don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables.”
While almond milk certainly has a better environmental footprint than dairy (and it doesn’t involve any animal cruelty), it still takes an infamously wasteful amount of water to produce, especially when you consider that almost all of the almonds are grown in drought-stricken California. But, even then, if millennials are really that concerned about the environment or animal welfare, why do we still eat so much cheese and ice cream? “The meat and dairy industry is a nightmare of abuse and horror, but I still eat meat and eggs, so clearly I’m fairly hypocritical,” admits almond milk drinker Rita Halpert, 30.
So, what happened? Although “big” almond milk has certainly spent plenty of money on marketing and traditional advertising to make this change, the inside story of almond milk’s skyrocketing success was largely a total accident, at every step of the way.
It actually begins with soy. More specifically, it begins with one of America’s soy pioneers, Steve Demos, the founder of WhiteWave Foods. After traveling extensively in India as a young man and perfecting his tofu recipe in his bathtub, Demos founded WhiteWave in Boulder, CO in 1977. He then spent more than 20 years traveling the country trying to convince Americans to eat more tofu and tempeh, until he finally struck gold in the late ‘90s.
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“As Steve would tell you, it was a 21-year overnight success,” recalls Alan Murray, an industry veteran, who worked closely with Demos in those years. (Demos is out of the country and unreachable for the foreseeable future, Murray says.) What changed? Well, in 1997 he developed Silk, one of America’s first soy milk brands. At the time, companies like Pacific Foods and West Soy sold no-refrigeration-needed soy milk in cans or other shelf-stable packaging, mostly in natural food stores. But Demos had the idea that soy milk might sell better if it was placed in the refrigerated aisle alongside the dairy products, the foods he was trying to replace.
Back then, Murray was the CEO of TetraPak, a large consumer foods packaging company that sold gable-top and Tetra Brik packaging, a.k.a. milk cartons. “Steve called and wanted 5,000 of these things. That’s like four seconds of print time,” Murray says. At the time, Tetra Pak was selling 10 billion cartons a year to companies like Nestle and Coca-Cola; to stop production and reset the machines for an order that small was barely worth the cost of the order. “But the sales guy believed in him. He was very persuasive that this would be huge and there would be many more orders.”
And he was right: The first order was placed in 1999, and by 2001 White Wave was doing $81 million in sales. At the same time as the move to the refrigerated aisle, soy was drowning in positive press, owing to studies showing it might help people lower their cholesterol and improve heart health. In 1999, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) even went so far as to allow soy brands to be marketed as products that fight heart disease. The soybean was also linked to lowering risk for cancer and osteoporosis.
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After Demos’ success with soy, Blue Diamond Growers, a cooperative for almond farmers in California that’s been around since 1910, saw a major opportunity, says Suzanne Hagener, director of brand marketing for Blue Diamond. “Almond milk really was developed because there were a lot of people at the time who couldn’t have dairy and were drinking soy but didn’t like the taste of soy,” she says.
Natural food stores were the first to offer the product. Eventually it made its way to the regular supermarkets, where it was sold on the shelf-stable aisle alongside other (at the time) hippy dippy vegan and vegetarian meat substitutes. “Only a niche customer would go there to find it,” says Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association. And yet, even then, it still sold more year over year, thanks largely to word of mouth.
Then finally, in 2008, Blue Diamond felt it was time to move it to the refrigerated aisle, in part because of growing demand written in their sales and also because soy was tumbling. A few years before, as the message got across that soy was “good for you,” all sorts of soy products flooded the market, including pastas, protein powders, meatless patties, infant formulas and more. Soy was primed for a backlash, and it got one, in the form of animal studies that suggested too much soy might lead to hormone disruption, thyroid problems, and possibly an increased risk for breast cancer for certain women. Although these effects have never been observed in humans (outside a few case studies of people eating astronomical amounts of soy), the damage was done. People were turned off by soy, and therefore thirsty for an alternative; at the exact same time, that alternative miraculously appeared in the dairy case.
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“That’s when we saw it explode. Truthfully, the formula we sold in-shelf is the same as the refrigerated; they’re just put into different packages,” Hagener says. “In 2010, we went into a larger distribution naturally. We’ve just been really fortunate.”
When almond milk appeared in the milk aisle, not only was soy tumbling, but the tides were changing in other ways as well. The food writer Michael Pollan had just hit it big with his books promoting plant-based eating: The Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2006, followed by In Defense of Food in 2008. The anti-industrial farming documentary, Food, Inc. — which features a dairy cow prominently in promotional materials — would also be released that year. Mark Bittman published Food Matters in 2009, the same year Michelle Obama would install her vegetable garden on the White House grounds. In those years, Americans were absolutely besotted with plant-based eating, both as a way to signal they cared about the earth and its animals and as a way to say they cared about their own health. Given soy’s soiled reputation, it makes sense that almond milk became a favorite.
But now, even those cultural juggernauts can feel quaint. Almond milk’s real staying power has been fueled by what came next: the “clean eating” craze. Clean eating is a notoriously nebulous, anti-scientific term. It can mean different things to different people, but in general it encompasses a variety of consumer trends, such as a preference for whole, organically produced foods over “junk foods,” the shunning of dairy, meat and other animal products as well as other “problematic” ingredients like gluten and grains for not always clear reasons, and an obsession with “superfood”-packed juices and smoothie bowls. (These not only have supposed healing properties but also look beautiful in photos for Instagram. Of course).
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The “clean” phenom has spread mostly through social media, pushed by Instagram and YouTube influencers who promote it as well as its close cousin The Paleo Diet, which advises you to “eat like a caveman,” (and which ironically excludes cow’s milk since domesticated dairy cows did not exist in paleolithic era, when humans were solely hunter-gatherers). “Almond milk ties to the avoidance of dairy, which is part of the Paleo and Whole30 movement as well as part of clean eating in general,” explains Evan Asano, the CEO and founder of Media Kix, a leading influencer marketing agency. Never mind the fact that cavemen and women also didn’t farm almonds they could produce vast quantities of “milk” with, nor live past the age of 35. These trends started picking up in 2013 and 2014, which is the year almond officially overtook soy, and have nonetheless carried almond milk into today.
The through-line of all these related trends is not that they’re actually “clean,” but that they feel “clean” — or at least, they do in comparison to the things clean eating wants you to avoid. For example, meat, dairy, and eggs industries have infamously dirty connotations, owing to their production’s close proximity to literal shit. Non-organic produce is dirty owing to the pesticides (hence, the Environmental Working Group’s annual “Dirty Dozen” list). Soy is not clean because of the overblown issues linked to soy. Gluten and grains are dirty due to their likelihood of being genetically modified, which is an insanely complicated — and yes, dirty! — debate we can’t get into here.
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But almond milk is the opposite of all of these things: It’s dairy-free, soy-free, lactose-free, as the marketing copy will tell you. It’s made from just two very simple, very clean-feeling ingredients: water and almonds. (If you flip over your bottle of Almond Breeze or Silk Almond or Califia Farms, you will find that the modern store-bought almond milk also has a few preservatives and is fortified with calcium. But don’t worry, you can still find plenty of brands which use “clean” additives.) The point is, the things that make almond milk attractive to “clean” eaters have little to do with nutrition or healthfulness, at least not in any scientific sense.
It’s not that almond milk is bad for you. It’s neither particularly good nor bad. It contains small amounts of vitamin E and riboflavin from the almonds, but it’s pretty much the equivalent of almond-flavored water. It’s a fine choice if you’re lactose-intolerant or a vegan or vegetarian who’s concerned about animal cruelty or the environment, or if you just prefer the taste. But none of these reasons fully explain the iron grip almond milk has on millennial consumers.What does, though, is a food culture that speaks to our values, our aspirations, our lifestyle.
“It makes me think back to the ‘90s and Gourmet magazine,” Mills says when asked why she thinks people love almond milk. “Back then it was all about being a gourmand, serving rich food and throwing elegant dinner parties. Today, the new bandwagon is green smoothies. Almond milk is very much at the center of that.”
A center, which by the way, is potentially losing hold to other milk-alternatives. Will almond milk be bested by coconut? (Sales are now at $72.6 million, a 9% increase since 2014, per Nielsen data). Or what about goat? (A $19 million business, a 6% increase.) There’s also now cashew milk, peanut milk, flax milk, even quinoa milk.
If you ask us, though, our money is on oat. Why? We just have a feeling.
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