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Consumer Trends of 2021: The great milk debate

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Dec 21, 2021

As we close out 2021, the Instacart Ads team has been looking at consumer trends in online grocery shopping over the past year. In each article of this series we’ll dive into a specific category or categories impacted by a diet trend and look at the influence it had throughout 2021. 

With the new year just around the corner–and the ‘new year, new me’ bringing health and diet trends to center stage–we wanted to take a look at the sales of milk alternatives on the Instacart marketplace.

Growth in the milk alternatives space

If you frequent any coffee shop and overhear someone ordering drinks with names like double-pump caramel, no-whip macchiato, hazelnut café latte, or café misto, you’ve likely been asked: ‘what kind of milk do you want?’

To those of us of a certain vintage, the answer to that question could be ‘skim’, ‘two percent’, ‘whole milk’, ‘cream’, or maybe ‘half and half’ but we considered it a question around the fat content of the cow’s milk put in the coffee. What was on offer was all cow’s milk. 

Not so these days. 

While dairy alternatives have been available for a long while, mentioned as far back as in a 13th-century Baghdadi cookbook, it’s only recently that dairy alternatives have seen exponential growth, popping up in our homes, grocery stores, and coffee shops. Recent reports predict the dairy alternatives market will be worth $40.6 billion worldwide by 2026

The fight for space in your coffee mug and cereal bowl is heating up. Some dairy farmers have questioned whether it’s fair to even call these alternatives milk. Oat milk. Almond milk. Soy milk. Rice milk. These plant-based alternatives may fill a similar role to dairy milk, and look and taste similar (or better depending on who you talk to!) but can you really milk an almond?

This article provides a pretty succinct method for making almond milk, which, paraphrased, involves soaking the almonds in water, grinding them up, and draining the liquid from the result.

That sounds quite different to how we get milk from a cow. 

So is it milk if you didn’t milk something to get it? That’s the question before the FDA, as dairy farmers lobby and file lawsuits to get the FDA to stop allowing dairy alternatives to call themselves “milk”.

Milk versus milk on the Instacart marketplace 

Consumers buying their groceries at their favorite retailers through the Instacart marketplace are primarily buying dairy milk. It holds the title as top-selling milk. However, dairy producers’ concerns of the alt-milk takeover aren’t unfounded. Dairy alternative sales are growing at 2x the rate of dairy milk sales on the Instacart marketplace.

What’s more interesting is how milk-alternative consumers are split between almond milk, oat milk, soy milk, and others. We dug into the data to see which alternative won out this year — and the answer was pretty clear.  

Let’s take a look:

From this graph the percentage share of milk alternative sales we can clearly see almond milk with the clear majority, followed by oat milk. But comparing the data from 2020 to 2021 we can also see that oat milk sales grew significantly in 2021, cutting into almond milk’s share.  

Oat milk was originally popularized by the introduction of the Swedish brand Oatly in 2016. Though unlike the seemingly effortless rise in household penetration of Swedish exports like ABBA and IKEA, Oatly needed some help from coffee shops like Blue Bottle, who now use oat milk as their default dairy option, to boost their presence. 

Looking at the basket affinities for milk alternatives, we see these consumers following other health trends as well, buying things like meat alternatives, egg substitutes, and almond butter. They also purchase other health minded foods like kombucha, kale, coconut water, and hummus. 

Interestingly, about ⅓ of baskets with milk/dairy alternatives also have cow’s milk — perhaps reflecting preferences for cow’s milk in certain applications, like on the cereal that is also in ¼ of those baskets, or revealing households split on the milk debate. 

Interested in learning more about how consumers shop online in categories relevant to your business?  Partner with us to get access to in-depth analysis and on-demand reporting. 

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Instacart

Instacart is the leading online grocery platform in North America, partnering with more than 700 beloved national, regional and local retailers, including unique brand names, to deliver from more than 65,000 stores across more than 5,500 cities in North America. To read more Instacart posts, you can browse the company blog or search by keyword using the search bar at the top of the page.

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