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From Kim Kardashian and Oprah Winfrey to Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, alternative milk start-ups have attracted a long line of celebrity ambassadors – and investors. Among the most recent is Canadian rocker Bryan Adams who announced an investment into plant milk company bettermoo(d) last October. Its first product, Moodrink is a foamable milk alternative made from oats blended with herbs and vegetables. The company likens the blend to cows’ natural diet before the rise of industrial agriculture.

Oat milk is just one of the many alternatives to dairy now available in supermarket aisles. Besides milks made from cashew, rice and almond, recent introductions include peanut, pea, pistachio and even potato milk.

In health terms, however, consumers cannot simply swap out dairy with plant milks and expect the same benefits.

What’s driving it?

The US Food and Drug Administration – whose guidelines are followed around the world – continues to recommend a portion of dairy or fortified soy alternatives with every meal, while researchers say that cow’s milk – which humans have drunk for millennia – remains a complete and balanced source of protein, fat and carbohydrates. However, dairy allergies and lactose intolerance are forcing people to look towards plant-based milks.

“Health, mainly in connection with digestion and reducing the intake of sugar, is the top reason to choose plant-based dairy offerings in the UAE,” says Monique Naval, a Senior Analyst at market research agency Euromonitor.

She says oat milk is the most popular plant milk in the UAE’s supermarkets because oats are more sustainable than other alternatives such as almonds and because oat milk has a neutral flavour profile that does not overpower coffee or tea. “Health credentials are also associated with oats in general due to their content of prebiotic fibre, boosting an already good reputation.”

Nutritionally, however, not all plant milks are equal. Coconut milk, like cow’s milk, is high in saturated fats, which are linked to a higher incidence of heart disease. Other nut and grain milks – including soy, flax, almond, cashew and macadamia – have a greater number of heart-healthy unsaturated fats, Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health, wrote in a recent New York Times column.

The body needs healthy fats for energy, and most national nutrition guidelines around the world recommend substituting some of the saturated fat in our diet for unsaturated.

Milk is often considered a source of protein, but soy milk has a similar protein profile as cow’s milk. Willett recommends choosing products fortified with vitamin D and calcium and warns about added sugar in alternative milks.

Market outlook

But environmental and health concerns comprise just one side of the story for celebrities pushing plant milks. The other is the tremendous market potential for animal-free milk.

“Retail value sales of plant-based milk is expected to grow by 11 per cent in 2022 and maintain the same compound annual growth rate over the next five years to reach Dh127 million by 2027,” Naval says.

That’s in line with the international market. Delaware-headquartered Global Market Insights Inc estimates the dairy alternatives market at $24 billion in 2021 and expects the sector to grow at a compound annual rate of 10 per cent to be valued at about $49 billion by 2028.

In the US alone, plant-based milk accounted for 10 per cent of the total dairy market in 2021.

Whether it’s lactose intolerance, the environment or celebrity endorsements, nearly 70 per cent of plant-based milk consumers joined the category in 2020 and 2021, which shows the accelerating trajectory of the category and its growth potential