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Milk alternatives and what’s important for their production

Milk alternatives and what’s important for their production

Eliminating animal products is not limited to strict vegetarians or vegans. Flexitarians, too, are reducing their intake of animal-based foods and this is an effect on the dairy industry. Krones breaks down what this means for the industry. Food & Beverage Industry News reports.

Just ten years ago, plant-based drinks were still a niche product found mostly in organic grocery stores. Today, they’ve made their way into every supermarket, without exception – and they’re filling the shelves with an increasingly colourful array of products.

According to Global Data, the average growth rates for the milk and milk alternatives market as a whole will be around three per cent each year between 2020 and 2025.

Meanwhile, plant-based drinks are forecast to grow by seven per cent annually, far faster than the market overall.

Europe and North America are lending especially strong momentum to this vigorous trend.

A simple comparison of the figures from 2020 with the estimates for 2025 shows dramatic growth in both regions: 21 per cent in Europe and even 36 per cent in North America.

By contrast, dairy drinks are expected to grow by only four and one per cent in these regions, respectively.

A paradigm shift is underway

“Plant-based drinks will become an equal alternative to dairy in the medium term,” said Stefan Höller, head of Product Management Processing Unit at Krones.

“Because one thing is clear: It won’t be possible to feed all of the world’s population with animal-based foods alone in the long term.”

In an effort to slow climate change and at the same time ensure that people have access to clean drinking water and enough food, policymakers, companies, and private individuals are looking for root causes in many areas of life and business.

Debates often quickly home in on livestock farming because it requires a great deal of water and land area and creates relatively high levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

For that reason, many people are consciously switching to plant-based alternatives, whose production entails (sometimes significantly) lower water consumption.

Lactose intolerance – disease or evolution?

Many people have no choice but to seek alternatives to milk for health reasons. Between 66 and 75 per cent of adults worldwide (the exact number varies by source) cannot properly digest dairy.

That’s because lactase production in the intestines either drops off substantially or stops altogether with age.

But there are dramatic regional differences here: Europeans are said to have developed the ability to produce the enzyme lactase as adults, as part of their evolution.

In Asia and Africa, on the other hand, it is quite common to be intolerant of cow’s milk.

According to Euromonitor, some 85 per cent of the populations there lack the enzyme and lactose intolerance is therefore considered entirely normal. As a result, plant-based alternatives have long been established in those markets.

High marks for nutritional content

The trend on supermarket shelves has long been toward offering extensive selection.

But when it comes to milk, there’s not much scope for variation besides fat content and perhaps an organic label.

While there is no question that almond, soy, and oat are the most popular types, the pallet of plant-based drinks is much, much wider than that.

Rice, cashew, hazelnut, pea, coconut…, the possibilities seem endless. But plant-based drinks offer variety not only in terms of their raw materials but also in their nutrient profiles.

They bring us full circle to more conscious nutrition.

For example, soy beverages contain large amounts of phytonutrients and unsaturated fats, almond “mylk” is rich in fiber and vitamin E, and oat drinks deliver fiber and antioxidants.

Krones breaks down how changing consumer demands are impacting on the dairy sector.
Krones breaks down how changing consumer demands are impacting on the dairy sector.

Many makers of these products also fortify them with calcium and B vitamins to achieve a micronutrient profile similar to cow’s milk.

When it comes to frothing, most milk alternatives can now hold their own against cow’s milk in terms of texture. And it’s no wonder, since there are so many possibilities for influencing the final consistency during the production process.

Filling these products, which may be made from myriad plant sources including soy, oats, spelt, buckwheat, rice, almonds, or other nuts, involves exactly the same technology as dairy milk. Producing them is a different matter entirely.

The process technology makes all difference.

The main production steps for all milk alternatives are essentially the same: The grains or nuts are milled (either wet or dry) and then filtered or separated before any additional ingredients such as plant oils are blended in.

To make the products shelf-stable, they are heat-treated and homogenised, after which they are filled aseptically.

The individual process steps will be quite different depending on the input materials used – whether they are fresh or dried and whether they are whole nuts or grains, meals or flours.


The first differences emerge at the milling stage: While cereals are usually ground to flour, to which water must be added, materials with higher fat content, such as almonds and peanuts, grind to a highly viscous paste.

The milling process itself will vary depending on the raw materials used: The deciding factors here include whether the inputs are dried or fresh, peeled/hulled or whole, that is, with the skins or hulls still on.

Some raw materials will be roasted prior to milling. Almonds, for example, are roasted to reduce undesirable constituents such as benzaldehyde.


To make further processing easier, many raw materials (including soy, hazelnuts, rice, almonds, and peanuts) are first soaked in water. This step can also help remove unwanted constituents or impurities.

A blanching step may also be added in order to improve the microbiological profile and reduce certain original enzymes.

Here, the raw material is briefly heated in water and then immediately cooled.

In the case of cereals, the starch components must first be broken down using hydrolysis. Because the starch is separated into dextrins, this step influences the viscosity of the product by preventing gelatinisation.

The process also affects the product’s sweetness since the dextrins are separated into the sugars maltose and glucose.

Unwanted constituents can then be removed or deactivated by subsequent heating of the liquid: For instance, heating can deactivate the lipoxygenase enzymes in soybeans, which are responsible for the typical “beany” flavor.


Both soy and cereals have relatively high fibre content. In order to produce a milk alternative that goes down smoothly, insoluble fibres must be removed in either a decanter centrifuge or a filtration process. Such a process is not necessary for almonds.

The remaining solids can be dried and pressed and made available to animal feed producers or other users.

Some beverage producers of non-dairy drinks collect these fiber residues and feed them back into the manufacturing process for a second extraction to increase yields.

Blending in additional ingredients

Depending on the raw material used, the protein, fat, mineral, or vitamin content will be higher or lower.

Thus, makers of plant-based drinks might add plant oils (such as sunflower), vitamins or minerals, or even salt, sugar, or stabilisers to the product.

Heat treatment and homogenisation

To make the finished product shelf-stable, heat treatment and homogeniaation are done before filling.

Since most products on the market are shelf-stable and sold at room temperature, they undergo ultra-high- temperature (UHT) pasteurisation.

Subsequent high-pressure homogenisation ensures that any remaining particles are reduced in size, for instance so that fats remain in suspension and do not separate out.

Aseptic filling

Since plant-based products resemble milk not only in terms of appearance but also in their sensitivity, aseptic filling is necessary to ensure a long shelf life. For this purpose, Krones offers the Contipure AseptBloc DN – proven technology with which to fill plant- based drinks aseptically and reliably.

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