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Oat milk’s popularity expands to the ice cream case

Sales of plant-based ice cream are on the rise, fueled by new products including oat-based options.

4 min read


Oat milk’s popularity expands to the ice cream case

(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Sunday was National Ice Cream Day, a highlight of National Ice Cream Month which was designated by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. These days, more of the sweet frozen treats being enjoyed on hot July days are made from nuts and oats instead of dairy products.

Sales of plant-based ice cream and other vegan frozen novelties rose 26.5% to $304 million last year, a 66.7% increase from 2017, according to a joint report out last week from the Good Food Institute and the Plant Based Foods Association.

It’s a small but fast-growing portion of the US ice cream and frozen dessert market, which overall is estimated at about $27 billion including both retail and foodservice sales, according to a report from Cargill.

Millennials are driving demand for vegan ice cream, according to a 2018 Technavio report. US consumers account for 45% of global plant-based ice cream consumption, the report says, and sales are on track to grow an average of 9% annually and hit $2.45 billion by 2027.

In recent years, major brands including Ben & Jerry’s, Haagen Daz and Breyers have joined the category once dominated by specialty brands including So Delicious, Nada Moo! and Tofutti.

The earliest entries into the category were typically soy- and almond-based, but the diversification in the plant-based ice cream category mirrors that of plant-based milk, and these days offerings are made with a variety of bases including cashews, coconut milk and oat milk.

Oatly, a 25-year-old Sweden-based company that sparked a new trend in the US when it brought its popular oat milk here a few years ago, created a seven-flavor line of oat milk-based ice cream that launched in US retail channels last month.

Some brands have created exotic flavors with fruits, nuts and other additional ingredients, but Oatly opted largely to keep it simple with familiar flavors including vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, said General Manager Mike Messersmith.

“Because we’ve been around for so long and have the experience, we were able to make [traditional flavors] in a zero-compromise vegan way,” he said.

The line also includes Coffee, Chocolate Chip and Mint Chip, as well as a plain Oat flavor.

Oatly settled on seven flavors as a strategic move, after feedback from customers, Messersmith said. The typical supermarket freezer has room for seven pints across a single row, so Oatly designed a line that would fill an entire row.

Ice cream was a logical next step for a brand whose core product, oat milk, burst onto the US scene and fast-tracked a new trend a couple years ago.

“We liked the ide of doing ice cream and frozen products next because it’s that fun treat sort of product,” he said. “We like showing that range and breadth. It brings fun and excitement into plant-based and vegan foods.”

As with other plant-based categories, it’s not the vegans and vegetarians who are driving growth so much as the flexitarians experimenting with more ways to replace some animal products with plant-based options.

And, also as with other categories, the products have to be just as tasty as those made from animal products to win consumers over the long term.

In addition to being a sustainable crop, oats can provide a creamier base for frozen desserts than some other plant-based options.

So Delicious, which has often led in innovation in the category, including the launch a few years ago of creamy cashew-based ice cream flavors, has also created three oat milk-based flavors: Peanut Butter and Raspberry, Oatmeal Cookie and Caramel Apple Crumble.

And earlier this year, Perry’s Ice Cream partnered with plant-based Elmhurst Dairy to launch dairy-free Oats Cream in seven flavors including Blueberry Pancake and Apple Streudel.

“One of the things we’re really excited about is seeing the transformation of the store with really great plant-based options,” Oatly’s Messersmith said. “When they’re having a treat, we don’t want the idea that because it’s vegan or plant-based that there’s a compromise on taste or texture.”

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