R&D / Wellness Foods

Lactose and Dairy-Free Beverage Category Expands

Lactose- and dairy-free beverages are experiencing a considerable increase in demand by health-driven consumers.

By John K. Ashby, Contributing Editor

Grain-based (and similar) nutritional beverages command more space in the grocery store than ever before, thanks to the growing awareness by consumers of the health benefit of whole grain foods.

Soy led the charge in the development of milk-replacement beverages, but rice soon became a key player. Soymilk photo courtesy of Pacific Foods; Rice Dream photo courtesy of Imagine Foods.

Soy milk was the first welcoming beacon for lactose-intolerant U.S. consumers seeking something they could pour over their cereal in the morning. Since then, players such as Silk by White Wave, now a part of Dallas-based Dean Foods (www.deanfoods.com), have been successfully leading consumers away from the traditional milk beverage — cows’ milk — and towards vegetarian nutritional beverage options. And it’s not just soy milk today. Widely available milk alternatives are being made from rice, oats, almonds and hazelnuts.

Soy is particularly notable in the milk-replacement role because it has a complete amino acid profile and thus, with respect to nutritional requirements, is a competitive substitute for dairy milk. Add fortification with calcium and vitamins — specifically D — and differences diminish to nearly nil.

Soy is also interesting as the trailblazer. It successfully (look at any grocery store refrigerated and health food section) got the U.S. consumer to come to a vegetable-based option/substitute for milk.

Rice was also an early player in the nutritional milk-substitute game, but didn’t take off until Imagine Foods’ Rice Dream line dove into the pool to enormous success. Rice “formula” before that time was largely used in clinical settings as a rehydration tool. But the factors that made rice a safe and desired refeeding beverage for the unwell — it’s easily tolerated, suitable for infants and allergic reactions are very rare — made it appealing to those desiring healthful alternatives when dairy is ruled out for health or religious reasons.

Rice milk is traditionally in the natural/health food mold, usually using organic ingredients and a minimum of processing. Rice Dream is the market leader, and since becoming a member of the Hain-Celestial Group, Melville, N.Y. (www.hain-celestial.com) the brand has been expanding. New offerings include a refrigerated version (as opposed to the traditional aseptic packs) and the just-released Heartwise Rice Dream. This heart-health oriented beverage is enriched with vitamins A, D and B12, and has the same calcium as dairy milk. It also contains Cargill Inc.’s “CoroWise” phytosterol ester—a plant-based extract that studies have shown may help reduce the risk of heart disease.

Other products filling out the product selections include from Anaheim, Calif.-based Pacific Foods (www.pacificfoods.com) line of minimally processed oat milks and mixed grain milks (oat groats, triticale, barley, organic soybeans, brown rice, amaranth).

Adjunct to the sudden wealth of cereal grain-based nutritional beverages, but still very much within the conceptual category of milk alternative, are the nut milks. Examples include almond milks, such as the highly popular Almond Breeze line from the Blue Diamond cooperative in Sacramento, Calif., (www.bluediamond.com), and hazelnut milk from Pacific Foods.

Consumers are now fully accepting of grain-based dairy substitutes and the trend is only growing. Moreover, it’s a valuable trend as processors continue to incorporate more — and more diverse — nutraceuticals and other health components into these beverages.

— John K. Ashby is General Manager - Ingredients for California Natural Products, a manufacturer of rice ingredients for the food industry.

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