New varieties of plant-based milk alternatives, low in calories and rich in dietary fiber, are gaining more attention than ever in Japan, raising expectations that the market will continue growing in future years.
In Western markets, nondairy milk has attracted consumers, including vegans and “flexitarians,” who mainly eat vegetables but occasionally have meat as well. The boom is now spilling over to Japan, with new milk substitutes made of almonds, oats and coconuts falling under the spotlight, rather than soy milk, which has been widely accepted in Japan for decades.
According to British research group Euromonitor International, sales of the non-soy milk alternatives in Japan stood at around $73 million in 2020. The figure is seen increasing to about $128 million in 2025.
Bio c’Bon Japon Co., an organic food retailer that runs more than 25 stores in Tokyo and neighboring Kanagawa Prefecture, sells 40 such items, including soy milk, from eight brands.
Although plant milk is usually more expensive than cow’s milk, the company achieved a more than twofold year-on-year jump in sales in 2020 after managing to lower the prices of Italian products launched in April that year.
“Plant milk can be used for various dishes, so it is probably not replacing regular milk in Japan. They are believed to serve different purposes,” said a spokesperson of Bio c’Bon.
Among non-soy milk alternatives, almond milk is ahead of others, with the market led by Osaka-based confectionery maker Ezaki Glico Co., which released almond milk products in 2014. The company’s sales of almond milk in 2020 increased 6% from the previous year. Notably, its one-liter carton posted a 40% surge in sales.
Demand stemming from “nesting” lifestyles due to restrictions imposed amid the novel coronavirus crisis contributed to the strong sales, but increasing health consciousness among consumers played a more significant role, a spokesperson noted.
Oat milk is also rising in popularity after more and more overseas brands became available in Japan.
For instance, Danone Japan Co. brought a Belgian brand to Japan in April 2020. A marketing manager of the brand said its products “go well with coffee and cereals,” in addition to being rich in dietary fiber.
Aiming to capture the momentum of growth in the oat milk market, Japanese companies have launched domestically manufactured products.
Marusan-ai Co., a soy milk and miso producer, started sales in March. Coca Cola (Japan) Co. also launched a new brand with three different flavors in March and plans to expand its sales areas, initially limited to the Kanto and Chubu regions.
The limited climate impact of milk alternatives has also drawn attention overseas, even though their low-fat and low-calorie attributes are emphasized much more strongly at the moment in Japan.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) noted in a report in 2013 that “cattle are the main contributor to the (livestock) sector’s emissions.” Greenhouse gas emissions linked to cattle milk production account for 20% of total emissions from the livestock sector, according to the FAO.
A recent British study also estimated that the production of dairy milk has three times more greenhouse gas emissions than that of plant milk alternatives.
The lighter burden on the environment could be a crucial factor for plant milk alternative manufacturers’ bid to attract new consumers in Japan.
Nozomi Hariya, senior analyst at Euromonitor International, said there has been an increase in awareness toward sustainability in Japan.
“Not only health awareness but also environmental concerns could help the growth of milk alternatives,” Hariya said. Noting that there are many more varieties of plant milks available in overseas markets, she continued, “The key to market expansion in Japan is to create more diverse options in terms of ingredients and the number of manufacturers.”
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