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Nuts Make Great Sources for Alternative 'Milks'

May 13, 2019
Almonds remain the most 'milked,' but other nut varieties are catching up, poised to surpass soy.

Nut milk? Nut mylk? Or something else entirely?

As the FDA wades through the thousands of comments it received related to the issue of whether plant-based beverages can use the word “milk” as part of the product’s name, consumers appear unfazed. These "alternative" drinks continue to fly off the shelves, whatever they’re called.

In a battle with industry-wide consequences, dairy producers petitioned FDA last year to clamp down on what they say is plant-based companies’ improper use of the work “milk,” claiming use of the term for anything but a beverage from a lactating mammal is deceptive.

In the meantime, traditional dairy milk sales continue multi-year declines. Dairy Farmers of America for example, reported its sales dropped $1.1 billion from 2017 for total (raw milk) sales of $14.7 billion in 2018.

The booming popularity of plant-based dairy milk alternatives is undeniable. According to Mintel Group, category sales reached $2.11 billion in the U.S. for 2017, posting a 61% increase compared to 2012. Almond milk commands a 64% market share with soy a distant second at 13%. However, analysts predict other varieties will surpass soy as consumers diversify their nut-milk purchases.

The strongest driver within the dairy alternative category as a whole, according to a Comax Flavors survey of 1,000 consumers, is flavor. However, in terms of non-dairy milk, half of all those surveyed (50%) listed ingredient source as one of the five most important attributes, followed by flavor (41%), price (39%), health benefits (37%) and its all-natural characteristics (32%).

Millennials and Gen Z rank animal welfare higher on their list of priorities than do older consumers when it comes to their selection of milk alternative products., and that works in favor of nut-based milks.

Interestingly, the vegetarian lifestyle doesn’t appear to be a prominent factor when it comes to plant-based dairy alternative product preferences. When asked to rank themselves according to eating habits, only 31% of survey respondents listed themselves as flexitarian and a scant 8% as vegetarian. Almost half, or 46% said they fit no special dining category whatsoever.

Almonds reign

The majority of dairy alternative milk sold is based on almonds. According to Harbinder Maan, associate director of trade marketing and stewardships for the Almond Board of California, almond milk enjoys broad appeal for its versatility.

“Its nutty taste and creamy texture suit a wide variety of uses and flavor partners,” Maan says. “It is particularly popular in smoothies and coffee, on oatmeal and in baking.”

Mintel forecasts almond milk sales to increase by 50% between 2015 and 2020. Millennials are key contributors to this demand with over 50% drinking or using almond milk at least once per month.

Millennials also happen to be concerned with product sustainability. Among nut varieties, peanuts are considered the most sustainable. It takes five gallons of water to produce one ounce of peanuts while it takes 80 gallons per ounce of almonds. Technically a legume, or a row crop grown in the ground, peanuts add nitrogen to the soil and require little fertilization.

Almond orchard acreage has doubled in the past two decades and now form California’s most “extensive irrigated crop.” According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the state produces 80% of the almond crop worldwide, exporting 70% of its harvest.

Walnuts enter the fray

If consumers are looking for a plant-based milk that lends itself well to pairing up with another popular beverage, namely coffee, almond milk might face a new competitor. Walnut milk, according to an industry spokesperson, pairs particularly well with coffee.

Food & Wine magazine in a recent taste-test of non-dairy milks said, “Where coffee generally dilutes a milk’s flavor, it seemed to enhance that of walnut milk” -- although the magazine also said that almond milk is “perfectly balanced” and the “milk to beat when it comes to everyday drinking.”

Walnuts recently leapt into the dairy alternative beverage market, along with other tree nuts such as cashews, or legumes that USDA classifies as nuts, namely the peanut.

Walnuts differ from almonds and peanuts in a few significant ways. Walnuts offer a bit less protein at 4g per ounce. In their favor, according to Kantha Shelke, technical consultant for California Walnuts, walnuts are the “only tree nut with a significant source of ALA (the plant-based form of omega-3) at 2.5g per ounce. One ounce of walnuts contains 2g of fiber and is a good source of magnesium and phosphorus.”

The tight peel of walnuts is removed using an alkaline treatment to avoid astringency in the final product, or by soaking in hot water or brine for 10-30 minutes. Walnuts also contain a good deal of tannin. Tannins are naturally occurring polyphenols common to many plants, some beans and some nut varieties, and also the source of a potentially bitter or astringent taste.

In order to reduce the tannins, coarsely ground walnuts are soaked or repeatedly washed and often lightly toasted for a smooth taste and flavor.

Cow’s milk offers a natural creamy texture and mouthfeel due to “the micellar particles which are very small in size,” said Shelke. “Plant-based milks can tend to be gritty because of large particles sizes which work against a smooth, creamy texture.

“The stability of walnut milk is affected by its polyunsaturated fat content (60%) and the tendency of walnut oils to bind with the proteins and aggregate into large particles, which contribute to the poor dispersion stability of walnut milk and thereby, the often associated chalky or gritty texture,” she continued.

Once the walnuts are ground, the subsequent homogenization step helps aid with achieving uniform particle sizes for a beverage application. Texture modifying ingredients such as lecithin, hydrocolloids, alginates, gelatin or vegetable gums can help contribute to a smooth mouthfeel.

Milking more nuts

In addition to its market-leading soy milk and milks made from oats and coconut, Silk, now owned by Danone, makes beverages out of almonds and cashews and sometimes blends two sources (almond & cashew, almond & coconut). Silk also makes coffee creamers and yogurts out of nondairy ingredients, primarily soy but also almonds.

Milkadamia, as the name implies, squeezes milk out of macadamia nuts.

Bolthouse Farms and Pacific Foods both stretched out of their legacy categories after being acquired by Campbell Soup to try their hands at nondairy milks. Bolthouse Farms mixes almonds with soy in its Plant beverage line. Hazelnut milk is among the newer products at Pacific Foods.

Elmhurst Milked LLC (www.elmhurst1925.com) also “milks” cashews and hazelnuts, and for a while was the only manufacturer making a peanut milk. But the company just discontinued the peanut milk product last month.

The impetus for peanut milk started approximately 10 years ago when growers determined there was a space for peanuts in the alternative milk category. “Peanuts are more affordable than almonds and also have more protein,” says Lauren Highfill Williams, marketing and communications manager for the National Peanut Board (www.nationalpeanutboard.org).

Despite Elmhurst’s discontinuation, Williams thinks peanuts still have potential among alternative milks. “We definitely have more than enough peanuts to provide supply for a milk,” she says. “As a row crop, growers can adjust the amount grown every year."

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