Significant percentage of consumers buy plant-based dairy alternatives because they think they are healthier, reveals Comax study

Why do consumers buy plant-based dairy alternatives? And what do they think formulators need to work on?

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Significant percentage of consumers buy plant-based dairy alternatives because they think they are healthier, reveals Comax study

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While flavor is still the most important attribute, consumer research from Comax Flavors reveals that a significant percentage of shoppers (36%) regularly consuming plant-based dairy alternatives cite health benefits as a key purchase driver, results that have frustrated - although not surprised - dairy industry executives, who insist that many of these products do not rival dairy in the nutritional stakes.

The survey was conducted last July with 1,000 US adults who consumed non-dairy products at least three days a week. Just 4% described themselves as vegan (defined as a strict vegetarian that also excludes eggs and dairy from the diet).

When it came to the most important attributes influencing purchase of non-dairy products, flavor came out on top (48%), followed by price (37%), health benefits (36%), ingredient source (33%) and all-natural credentials (30%). As for more high-level concerns, health and wellness, sustainability, and animal welfare were all key factors, with Millennials and Gen Z consumers significantly more likely to cite the latter than older generations as a purchase driver.

When broken down by category, however, perceived health benefits were the top purchase driver for non-dairy yogurt (45%) and the #2 driver behind flavor in the frozen desserts aisle (38%), but not a key factor at all for non-dairy creamers, where flavor, price, natural credentials, convenience and brand were all considered more important.

Ingredient source, meanwhile (eg. soy, almond, coconut, pea etc) was the #1 purchase driver for non-dairy milk (50%) but less important in the yogurt category, where health benefits, flavor and natural credentials were more relevant for consumers.

Watery… bland… bad aftertaste… lacks texture… artificial ingredients

From an organoleptic perspective, meanwhile, the survey revealed high satisfaction levels for non-dairy milks, creamers, yogurts and frozen desserts.

Respondents did, however, express some degree of dissatisfaction about taste and texture, with 13% finding dairy free milks “too watery​” and 9% citing a “bad aftertaste​.” For non-dairy yogurts, meanwhile, 11% reported “bad texture/mouthfeel”​ and 15% reported the taste as “too bland​.”

The highest levels of dissatisfaction were in the frozen dessert category, with 17% finding products “too watery” ​or “lacking in mouthfeel/texture,” ​and 12% citing a “bad aftertaste.”

16% of respondents also highlighted the presence of “artificial ingredients” ​in non-dairy frozen desserts, compared to just 4% who were concerned about this in non-dairy milks.

Top flavor: vanilla  

When it comes to flavor, it seems consumers of plant-based dairy alternatives are fairly conservative, enjoying vanilla, chocolate and fruit, although younger consumers over-indexed on spicy flavors vs their older counterparts.

How are people consuming non-dairy milks?

As to usage occasions beyond consuming the product on its own, non-dairy milk is most widely used with cereal (76%), followed by smoothies (54%), coffee (43%), oatmeal (40%), protein powders (25%), hot chocolate (21%), tea (11%), and juice (2%).

The non-dairy wish list: More protein, a creamier texture, more flavors, a cleaner label

Asked what they would like to see more of from manufacturers in the space, all shoppers wanted fewer calories and less sugar (which could equally apply to any product category), more flavor options, and a creamier taste and texture, but beyond that, answers varied by category.

So non-dairy milk drinkers were looking for more protein and vitamins; non-dairy yogurt fans were looking for more probiotics and vitamins, more fruits and nuts, and more natural, healthier options; and non-dairy frozen dessert fans were looking for more natural, healthier options.

To view a PDF of the research click HERE.

National Dairy Council: Not all substitutes add up

Asked to comment on the research, National Dairy Council chief science officer Greg Miller told FoodNavigator-USA that, "Cow’s milk dairy foods can offer significant nutrition to plant-based diets like ovo-lacto-vegetarian or other flexitarian eating styles. With each serving of cow’s milk you are guaranteed 9 essential nutrients like high-quality protein, vitamin D, calcium and B vitamins that the body needs each day. Not all substitutes add up, so I encourage people and families to check the label to make sure they get what they need to be healthy.

"It’s also worth pointing out that cow’s milk-based dairy products are responsibly produced by farmers who care for their animals and the land as they are producing nutrient-rich milk.

He added: "Milk, cheese and yogurt are associated with health benefits, too, from bone health to the link to reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Most of the alternative beverages do not have the depth and breadth of research behind their benefits compared to cow’s milk. Cow’s milk is available in fat-free, low-fat and whole as well as in flavors or lactose-free."

comax-animal welfare

According to research firm Global Data cited by Comax Flavors, 6% of US consumers claim to be vegan, up from 1% in 2014, while an estimated 3.3% of adults in the US identify as vegetarian, according to a 2016 Harris Poll commissioned by The Vegetarian Resource.

"We see a growing interest in plant-based products in a variety of non-dairy applications including milk, creamer, yogurt and frozen dessert,"​ said Catherine Armstrong, VP of corporate communications for Comax Flavors.

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