It’s never been easier to avoid dairy, thanks to an ever-expanding array of plant-based milks: Rice, soy, hemp, oat, coconut, almond, macadamia, hazelnut, cashew.
Enter pea milk, the newest nondairy beverage on the block. It’s vegan, nut free, soy free, lactose free and gluten free. It’s better for the environment than almond milk. And it has more protein and calcium than other alternative milks.
Yes, it’s funny to say “pea milk” out loud. Let’s all pause here to get all of those very mature pea milk jokes out of your system. Shall we carry on?
The biggest brand in pea milk thus far has been Ripple, a company that obtained $44 million from Google and Silicon Valley venture capitalists, according to Bloomberg. But it’s about to get competition from Bolthouse Farms, the Campbell’s-owned brand that is releasing its own line of pea milks this month. The milk will soon be available in grocery stores including Kroger, Shaw’s, Publix and Safeway’s eastern division. It comes in four flavors: Original, which is creamy and lightly sweetened; unsweetened, which has an earthier flavor; and kid-friendly vanilla and chocolate, which taste just like milkshakes.
Pea milk doesn’t taste like peas, and it’s not made in the same way almond milk is, by soaking in water. For Bolthouse Farms’ Plant Protein Milk, the process begins with harvesting yellow peas and milling them into flour. That flour is processed, separating the pea protein from the fiber and starch. The pea protein is further purified and blended together with water and other ingredients, including sunflower oil and sea salt, as well as vitamins like B12.
“There’s some taste trade-offs and some calcium trade-offs and most certainly protein trade-offs with all the alternative milks on the market,” said Suzanne Ginestro, the chief marketing and innovation officer for C-Fresh, the fresh foods division of Campbell’s. Consumers “shouldn’t have to compromise on those three things.”
The Bolthouse Farms’ milks have 10 grams of protein per serving, as compared to one gram in many almond milks. It has more calcium than dairy milk. It is fortified with 110 percent of a consumer’s daily requirement for B12, which came out of consumer research that “found that vegetarians have a very difficult time getting sources of B12,” which is found naturally in animal products, Ginestro said. And environmentally, peas have “a much lower water footprint than growing almonds, and a much smaller carbon footprint than raising dairy cows.”
Plant-based milk sales are on the rise, while sales of traditional dairy milk continue to decline — though sales of yogurt and cheese are staying strong. Recent research from Nielsen has found that the plant-based milk category is up 3.1 percent since last year, while cow’s milk sales are down about 5 percent over the same period. According to Nielsen research from 2016, almond milk is the top-selling milk substitute in America, with sales growth of 250 percent from 2011 to 2015.
Because of the category’s success, there’s a surprisingly heated legislative battle over the word “milk” and whether it should be allowed to be used to describe products that do not come from animals. Bills in the House and Senate backed by the dairy industry have aimed to ban the makers of plant-based products from using the terms “milk,” “cheese” or “yogurt.” The dairy industry says the plant milks could cause consumer confusion; plant-food advocacy groups counter that consumers are buying nondairy milks precisely because they know they do not have the same origin or nutritional profile as conventional milk.
Both Bolthouse Farms’ and Ripple’s pea-based milks are found in the refrigerated aisle, alongside dairy milk — as opposed to being packaged in the shelf-stable Tetra Paks that several brands of alternative milks use. This is because the milk does not contain preservatives, Ginestro said, and it’s also to grab consumers’ attention.
“People are used to buying their milk in the dairy aisle,” she said. “We want to be where consumers are, and where they can get greater access to these alternatives.”
It has a more mass-market style of packaging than Ripple, which features a very millennial-appealing design motif, quirky font and gold packaging. The brands seem to be going after different markets, too: Ripple is found in Whole Foods and Target, while Bolthouse is aiming for a wider audience in more traditional grocery chains.
“Being a part of Campbell’s gives us the resources to have access to broad distribution footprints, and how to get product from here to there,” Ginestro said. “That’s why we’re starting out with stores like Krogers and Safeway.”
And you’ll notice one other thing about Bolthouse Farms’ packaging: the fact that it’s made from peas isn’t a major part of their branding. The milks are called “Plant Protein Milk,” reflecting consumers’ interest in more plant-based foods, as well as placing a higher priority on protein in their diets. Recent Nielsen research found that 35 percent of American households follow a protein-based diet such as Paleo or low-carbohydrate. The number of products labeled an “excellent source of protein” grew 12 percent this year in the U.S.
Ginestro says the company considered a lot of names, but found that “people really resonated with the plant protein milk descriptor.”
When they were asked about the name pea milk, “They were concerned it wasn’t going to taste great. They were concerned it was going to taste like peas,” she said. “It’s the protein from the peas that is what’s inside the bottle. Taste being so important, we wanted to make sure that whatever we called it, signaled that it was going to taste good.”
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