Present Scenario and Consumer Perspective

By Preethi Ramachandran, Sweta Rai and Sabbu Sangeeta

Department of Food Science and Technology, College of Agriculture, GB Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, Pantnagar, Uttarakhand.

Cow’s milk has been widely consumed around the world for hundreds of centuries and acts as an important source of protein. It is a complete food providing all the major nutrients such as fat, carbohydrates, and proteins. Studies have also shown that the consumption of bovine milk helps the human body by providing a wide range of host-defence proteins. Despite the considerable advantages of the consumption of cow’s milk, there are various downsides associated with it. Firstly, the presence of various pathogens like Salmonella spp. and Escherichia coli O157:H7 in milk has been associated to cause widespread disease outbreaks around the world. Secondly, cow’s milk allergy is one the widest-spread allergy among infants and children. Recent studies conducted on a large scale have shown that about 35% of these infants outgrow their allergenicity towards milk by the age of 5–6 years, and this may further increase to 80% by the time they reach 16 years. Another issue widely associated with the consumption of cow’s milk is ‘lactose intolerance’. The intolerance is due to the absence or deficiency of the enzyme lactase in the digestive tract and is widely observed in 15–75% of adults. Further, other factors like the presence of cholesterol and vegetarianism have pushed people and the food industry to look for alternatives. Increasing demand for Vegetarian and vegan diets all over the world with concern over health and the environment also comes into play. Thus, the rise in the demand for alternatives to bovine milks has increased over the past few decades. These alternative milk, also called ‘non-dairy alternatives’ mainly include soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, cashew milk, and coconut milk. Various other sources have also been used to produce these milks, but relatively in minor quantities like hemp, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, flax, and oats.

Though the consumption of bovine milk has been decreasing with a considerable increase in alternative milks, the amount of research conducted is quite limited on these products. Various questions are yet to be answered to find the advantages of plant-based milk alternatives. Firstly, the ongoing debate on whether these products fall under the category of ‘milk’ or ‘beverage/juice/drink’ should be addressed. The traditional definition of milk is “whitish fluid, rich in fat and protein, secreted by mammary glands of female mammals for the nourishment of their young, and taken from cows, sheep, etc., as an article of human diet”. Though this definition does not fit the products that are currently sold as ‘milk alternatives’, in most cases their uses are similar to cow’s milk and is used as an article for the human diet. Further questions have been raised about the nutritional content and the health advantages of plant-based milks compared to the traditional milks which have to be answered through extensive research.

The consumption of plant-based milk alternatives has been on the rise in recent years. These alternatives are seen as healthier, more ethical, and environmentally friendly options to cow’s milk. However, the question of whether or not plant-based milk analogues can substitute cow’s milk remains a contentious issue. Key consideration which makes substituting cow’s milk with plant-based milk alternatives a difficult task for many individuals are:

  1. Nutritional Composition: The nutritional profile of cow’s milk and plant-based milk analogues are different. Cow’s milk is a good source of protein, calcium, vitamin D, and vitamin B12 that are important for overall health, while the nutritional content of plant-based milk analogues can vary depending on the source and processing techniques. For example, almond milk may be lower in protein and calcium compared to cow’s milk, but fortified versions of plant-based milk can provide similar nutrients. This can be a concern for individuals who rely on cow milk as a primary source of these nutrients.
  2. Taste: Plant-based milk analogues may have different tastes compared to cow’s milk, which can be a matter of personal preference. Some people find that plant-based milk analogues have a slightly different flavour compared to cow’s milk, which may or may not be appealing to them. One of the main difficulties in substituting cow milk with plant-based milk alternatives is the taste. Cow milk has a unique flavour and aroma that can be difficult to replicate in plant-based alternatives. While many plant-based milk alternatives aim to mimic the taste of cow milk, they often fall short of expectations, leaving consumers dissatisfied and longing for the real thing.
  3. Texture: Cow milk has a creamy texture that can be difficult to replicate in plant-based milk alternatives. Many plant-based milk alternatives may be thinner or more watery than cow milk, making them less appealing to some consumers.
  4. Allergies or Intolerances: Cow’s milk allergy or lactose intolerance can be a reason for individuals to seek alternatives, such as plant-based milk analogues. Plant-based milk analogues are typically lactose-free and can be suitable options for those who are lactose intolerant. However, some plant-based milk analogues may contain allergens, such as nuts or soy, which can be an issue for individuals with specific allergies.
  5. Culinary Uses: Cow’s milk and plant-based milk analogues can have different properties when used in cooking or baking. Cow’s milk has a higher protein content and may behave differently in certain recipes compared to plant-based milk analogues. For example, cow’s milk may curdle when used with acidic ingredients, whereas some plant-based milk analogues may not.
  6. Environmental and Ethical Considerations: Plant-based milk analogues are often chosen as an alternative to cow’s milk due to environmental and ethical concerns, such as animal welfare, greenhouse gas emissions, and deforestation. Plant-based milk analogues are generally considered more sustainable and have a lower environmental impact compared to cow’s milk production.
  7. Availability and cost: Cow’s milk is widely available in most grocery stores and is often less expensive than plant-based milk alternatives. In contrast, plant-based milk alternatives may be more difficult to find and can be more expensive, making them less accessible to many consumers.

The ability of plant-based milk alternatives to substitute cow’s milk is consumer dependent. Many consumers have grown up drinking cow’s milk and have developed a strong attachment to its taste and texture. For some, the idea of switching to a plant-based milk alternative may seem foreign and unappealing. Additionally, there is a sense of nostalgia associated with cow’s milk, which can make it difficult for consumers to make the switch to plant-based alternatives. However, consumers’ awareness of the health and environmental benefits of plant-based milk alternatives has increased the market for these alternatives. Additionally, as the taste and texture of plant-based milk alternatives improve, more consumers are willing to make the switch. Many consumers are also becoming more conscious of the ethical implications of consuming animal products, which is motivating them to explore plant-based alternatives.

In conclusion, while plant-based milk alternatives can offer similar nutritional benefits to cow’s milk, their ability to substitute cow’s milk depends on the consumer’s perspective. While some consumers may be hesitant to make the switch, the growing popularity of plant-based milk alternatives suggests that more people are open to exploring alternatives to cow’s milk. As the market for plant-based milk alternatives continues to grow, consumers can expect to see a wider range of options and greater accessibility to these alternatives.