Almond Milk: Wonder Food or Flash in the Pan?

Are Americans healthy-eating aficionados or easily-spooked trendees, lurching from one food bandwagon to the next? Sales patterns in the non-dairy milk category suggest the latter.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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Name a grain or a nut, and chances are someone is chopping it, mixing the paste with water and calling it milk. If cows could sue, they'd probably be seeking restraining orders.

Soybeans were first on the mass-merchandising shelves, with coconut, hazelnut and rice following. The category star of the moment is almond: from 2009 to 2012, Whitewave's compounded annual growth in almond milk sales is 126 percent, to $458 million. Comparable growth for the firm's Horizon Organic brand, on the other hand, is 23 percent, or $300 million total. Almond milk is Whitewave's current sales engine in "plant-based food and beverages." It's becoming the beverage of choice of hipsters.

Soy milk's sputtering growth aside, the plant-based milk portfolio still is riding high. Supermarket scanner data from IRI, a Chicago based market research firm (@iriworldwide), lumps the plant-based beverages under the subcategory, refrigerated kefir/milk substitutes/soymilk. Total dollar sales for the group have almost doubled in four years to $1.1 billion, IRI reports, including 14.36 percent growth in the 52 weeks ending Aug. 11.

While soy milk was the first of the nondairy alternatives to score a commercial hit, it's a relative newbie in the world of plant-based milk. Coconut, cashew, almond and other milk alternatives trace back 2,000 years and more. Soy milk's history is measured in hundreds of years. Still, its image is stodgy compared to the other varieties. What's really hurting it these days, though, is a possible link to breast cancer. Epidemiological studies suggest soy's phytoestrogens actually protect against cancer, and the American Cancer Society concluded soy is fine in moderation. But in vitro studies have concluded soy can stimulate tumor growth, and most women prefer to err on the side of caution.

A friend who has adopted the sobriquet Mr. Almond boasts of guzzling almond milk long before its recent popularity. Being self employed, his time is his own, and he eschews the dairy case completely, making his own almond milk. I visualize him struggling up the stairs to his top-floor apartment with a 50 lb. sack of almonds on his back (Mr. Almond says he only buys 25 lb. bags). The process is simple: dump a 2:1 ratio of water to almonds into a Vitamix blender, reduce to a puree, then dilute to a 6:1 water:almond ratio. For extra flavor, he adds a quarter teaspoon of vanilla and three tablespoons of honey. Aside from the capital cost of the blender, the end product is cheap: about $2.50 in raw material costs yields half a gallon of almond milk.

The positive health outcomes being attributed to almonds fall in the too-good-to-be-true category. Some suggest the skin catalyzes oxidative effects. Mr. Almond isn't buying it, though: he blanches the nuts before processing, to keep a low-level toxin out of his milk. Sounds like the phytoestrogens in soy. Almond shills may jeer, but I wouldn't bet against Mr. Almond's ahead-of-the-curve predictive power.

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