In the past five years, sales of almond milk have grown 250% to more than $894.6 million in 2015, according to the Nielsen Company.
During the same period, Nielsen adds, the total milk market shrunk by more than $1 billion.
The trajectories of almond and dairy milk are starkest when year by year sales growth are compared. Nielsen found sales of almond milk grew 7.8% in 2015 over the previous year while those of traditional milk fell 7%. This follows a pattern established in 2012 and 2013 when sales of almond milk grew 59.8% and 50% respectively, while traditional milk fell 0.7% and 1.7% in the same years.
In 2014, sales of dairy milk saw a slight rebound with growth of 3.1%, but clearly that was not sustained in 2015, according to Nielsen data.
The sharp difference between two subcategories softens slightly when the size of each is taken into account. Dairy milk still dominates, with almond milk accounting for about 5% of the total milk market.
Still, almond milk is the clear favorite among other substitutes, based on Nielsen data. It shows sales of almond milk last year were twice that of soy, which sold $297.7 million in 2015. Coconut milk came in next at $61.3 million, followed by rice milk at about $18 million and other substitutes at a combined $50.2 million.
Key drivers in consumer interest
Consumers’ increasing interest in almond milk and disinterest in dairy milk likely is “due to general health and wellness concerns and a rising awareness of the environmental and sustainability issues surrounding it,” said Greg Steltenpohl, CEO of plant-based beverage company Califia Farms.
“And, simply, a growing number of consumers [are] seeking a plant-based diet,” he added.
Data from Nielsen’s 2015 Global Health and Wellness survey supports this theory. It found more than 30% of consumers said whether a product was made from vegetables or fruit is “very important” in their purchasing decisions.
In addition, 30% said no artificial flavors were very important, followed up 29% for no artificial colors, 24% for organic and 20% for sustainable and fair trade – suggesting consumers are looking for back-to-basic, low-impact products, Nielsen said.
The market research firm added dietary restrictions may also explain interest in almond milk as it does not pose a threat to people who are lactose intolerant or who worry about hormones or antibiotics.
According to Nielsen, products labeled as hormone- or antibiotic-free have grown double digits in the past four years and generated $11.4 billion in sales last year. Likewise, sales of lactose free products grew 8.6% in the same period to $8.7 billion.
“Almond milk is very accessible to consumers looking to transition away from dairy milk because of its delicious taste and texture (verses other alternatives, like soy) and, therefore, its drinkability,” he said.
He added: “It’s also the first alternative dairy category with strong brand players like Califia Farms – which focuses on creating delicious, mindful nourishment that directly appeals to the huge number of people who are actively incorporating plant-based foods into their lives.”
Almond milk is here to stay
Even though the growth of Almond milk sales is slowing with the percent change dropping to 7.8% in 2015 compared to 39.8% in 2014 and 50% in 2013, Steltenpohl disagrees with Nielsen’s suggestion that the category may be plateauing.
“We strongly believe in the entire category’s growth potential (slowing to the triple digit range is still growing … a lot!), and we think that there are opportunities to continue innovating and challenging the status quo,” he said.
For example, he noted, Califia Farms’ Almond Milk Creamers “have revolutionized a sleepy category, bringing new users into both the dairy-free creamer category and the alternative dairy category for the first time.”
That said, Steltenpohl added he also sees significant potential for other nut milks.
“We have already made some significant investment in exploring [alternative nut sources] and are working with several other nut categories,” he said. “Our new CaliCoco Smoothie is a prime example of our use of coconut, but we also feel cashew, hazelnut and macadamia are important nut sources that we have already begun to explore and incorporate into some of our formulations.”