The rapid uptake in plant-based foods is keeping manufacturers on their toes. Plant-based beverages are gaining a significant consumer base, driven most recently by people’s increased focus on health and sustainability as well as the fact that there are simply more high quality products available for people to explore and enjoy.

The dairy alternatives sector encompasses products that are 100% plant-based, made from nuts, seeds or grains, which replace dairy-based products in the form of beverages, spreads, ice cream, yoghurt and other ready-made food products. Once in aisles mostly frequented by consumers with lactose intolerances or milk protein allergies, today, plant-based options have become mainstream as more consumers pursue healthier lifestyles, seek to reduce their ecological footprint – or simply discover they really like the taste.

Compared to just 10 years ago, consumers in a growing number of markets are now relatively spoiled for choices, with new dairy-free products coming onto shelves each year. At the same time, consumer expectations around taste, texture, ingredients, nutrition, provenance and overall ecological footprint are also increasing. 

Global shift towards more healthful and purposeful eating

Some studies estimate that as much as 65% of the global population has a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy. Lactose intolerance is most prevalent in people of East Asian descent, affecting more than 90% of adults in some of these communities. Lactose intolerance is also very common in people of West African, Arab, Jewish, Greek, and Italian descent. This intolerance most often occurs because our bodies produce less lactase – the enzyme required to break down the lactose sugar in milk – as we move away from milk as the primary source of nutrition. In many cultures this occurs already in early childhood and can result in digestion problems. Others have milk protein intolerance or suffer from a milk allergy – the latter involves the immune system and can be life-threatening. And some people avoid dairy products to minimize their exposure to steroids or hormones.

Globally, more people are adopting flexitarian eating habits, vegetarianism or vegan diets as a response to concerns about the ecological footprint of some foods. This has increased interest in plant-based beverages. Soy and pea alternatives, for example, deliver high protein, which is key as more consumers make this shift. Pea-based beverages, in fact, have even more protein per glass than cow’s milk. And in some markets, these types of drinks are actually more affordable than traditional cow’s milk. And because most people need two or three servings of dairy (or dairy alternative) every day, this is a dietary matter that consumers cannot simply brush aside. Combined, these factors are driving the growth seen in this dynamic sector.

A walk down the plant-based beverage aisle

The tremendous variety in this sector is manifest in the numerous products made from nuts, seeds and grains, such as: soy, coconut, cashew, macadamia, hemp, quinoa, barley, flax and pea. Many of these drinks are highly nutritious and fortified with calcium and vitamin D. The most common are:

  • Soy milk: a high-protein liquid made from ground cooked soybeans; typically fortified and used as a milk substitute; has roughly the same protein per cup as cow’s milk
  • Almond milk: a plant milk manufactured from almonds; contains no cholesterol or lactose
  • Rice milk: a grain milk made from rice (typically brown); mostly sold unsweetened
  • Oat milk: a milky liquid made from oats; used as a milk substitute, cooking ingredient and beverage

Getting into that shopping basket

Culture and the economy play vital roles in the development and spread of plant-based beverage consumption. According to research organization, Zenith Global, soy milk, which is well established in Asia, continued to dominate the global category throughout 2018 – representing about 50% of the global volume. Almond milk followed at 26%, and is expected to greatly increase in popularity over the next five years, particularly in Western countries. In fact, almond overtook soy milk as the best-selling plant-based milk in the U.S. in 2013. In Asia Pacific, more new products are utilizing value added ingredients (e.g. collagen, amino acids or charcoal) and emphasizing free-from attributes (e.g. soy-free, nut-free, preservative-free, GMO-free or sugar-free). This shift is driven largely by an increased focus on healthy diet and the fact that more households have disposable income.

As seen throughout the food sector, cross-over formats are also gaining in popularity. For example, granola cereal in the form of granola bars or yoghurt, traditionally eaten from a container with a spoon, is now often sold in ready-to-drink (RTD) containers, including probiotic, dairy-free alternatives. The RTD option is ideal for active consumers who might be traveling to work, on their way to the gym or looking for a quick snack between meals. And while the growth opportunities in the dairy alternatives beverage sector are tremendous, consumer expectations have never been higher. When it comes to plant-based yoghurt products, Euromonitor International recommends manufacturers: 

Plant-based beverages Retail
  • Leverage the nutritional value of plant-based yoghurt  
  • Target flexitarians, vegetarians and vegans, as well as dairy consumers who are health-conscious and  environmentally aware to build brand loyalty
  • Improve flavor and texture, including developing products with flavors that emulate dairy-based yoghurts 
  • Engage with consumers beyond retail

GEA is keeping a close eye on the plant-based beverage sector. It’s important for us to know what trends and innovations are coming down the pipeline so that we can support our customers in meeting changing consumer expectations and needs.”- Steffen Rathmann, Head of Non-alcoholic Beverages, GEA

GEA soybean processing know-how for high-quality end products

GEA delivers complete processing lines for producing the soy milk that forms the basis of: soy beverages, tofu and other food products. This milk is formed from a stable blend of oil, water and protein and produced by soaking soybeans, then milling and blending them with water then straining out the okara – or soy pulp, typically using a decanter

Once the enzymes are deactivated by heat, the liquid is deodorized, mixed and homogenized. The soy products are then pasteurized or ultra-heat treated and packaged. Reducing the activity of the lipoxygenase enzyme is an important step in the process, since this prevents unsaturated fatty acids from oxidizing and producing off-flavor (i.e. bean flavor). Flavor variants – whether the product has a bean or a neutral flavor – are created by setting the appropriate parameters during the extraction phase. Thanks to GEA separators, a centrifugal separator can also be used to produce reduced-fat variants by removing the oils. 

Supporting customers with big ambitions with full process integration

The dairy alternatives market in China is well established – in large part due to high lactose intolerance among the population as well as a marked rise in veganism. Soy still dominates the market thanks to its superior high protein content, and is being sold more and more often as a packaged product versus fresh, particularly as demand for convenience increases. Demands for clearly labeled ingredients from sustainable sources, followed up by sustainable and high quality manufacturing processes, are also on the rise.


When one of China’s largest dairy processing producers, already a long-term GEA customer, wanted to build a new soy processing plant in China, they chose GEA from among a pool of experienced competitors in the region. The project, which kicked off in late 2018, includes building and installing the components for the pre-treatment of soy products – from extracting the beans to blending. The new plant will be brought into operation in late summer this year, significantly increasing the customer’s soybean processing capabilities and position in the dairy alternatives market.

Turnkey plants like the one GEA is currently implementing in China, incorporate many integrated processes, including milling, grinding, separation by centrifuge, enzymation, blending, homogenization and thermal treatment – all of which require engineering expertise in planning, automating and bringing a plant online. Colm O’Gorman, who leads GEA’s global cross functional Plant-Based Beverages team is delighted that GEA is succeeding in each region to convert expertise and technology into projects with customers: “It shows our strengths as process integrators across the world, given we are able to offer all the core elements necessary for the extraction technology itself as well as downstream processes. Our comprehensive project experience and technology portfolio allows us to accompany our clients throughout the entire process, including subsequent production services. Our expertise combined with GEA’s partner-oriented approach is a win-win for customers.” GEA will continue to place emphasis on development in the plant-based beverages industry, leveraging its knowledge and expertise across the world, particularly at its development centers for non-alcoholic beverages.

The GEA constellation really empowers us to bring together experts from across disciplines and to integrate the best ideas into a tailor-made concept. We have a strong team working with our customer in China to ensure that the project rolls out successfully.”- Steffen Rathmann, Head of Non-alcoholic Beverages, GEA


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