Monday, July 15, 2024

Is oat milk becoming more popular in Latin America?

Of all the commercially-available plant milks, oat milk has risen to prominence like no other. In coffee shops around the world – particularly in North America and Europe –  it’s surprising to not see cartons of oat milk in fridges or on the bar.

Across other parts of the world, meanwhile, the oat milk market is growing, too. Take Latin America for example. The region has an established history of consuming different traditional plant-based drinks, but in recent years, oat milk has clearly become more and more popular in Latin American countries for several reasons.

But will consumption ever reach the same heights as in more developed plant milk markets? And what impact could this have on the Latin American specialty coffee sector? To find out, I spoke to three coffee professionals and a journalist from the region.

You may also like our article exploring why more people didn’t use plant milks at the 2023 World Barista Championship.

A glass of horchata with an ice cube and cinnamon stick.

A history of milk consumption in Latin America

Cow’s milk is widely available in many places, but it’s easy to forget that just a few centuries ago, its consumption was almost unheard of in certain parts of the world. For many farmers and agricultural workers in particular countries, the cost of purchasing and maintaining livestock and equipment required to produce and sell dairy milk was simply too expensive.

Historically, demand for cow’s milk in North America and Europe began to vastly outpace levels in other countries, including in Latin America. But once pasteurisation, transportation, preservation, and refrigeration technologies became more advanced and established in the region, the dairy market began to boom – largely driven by policy-driven strategies and government-backed marketing campaigns. The dairy industry thereby became a huge part of Latin America’s economy, similar to the US and certain European countries.

The traditional roots of plant-based food and drink

That doesn’t mean, however, that Latinos haven’t consumed plant-based food and drink for centuries either. In many indigenous Latin American cuisines, cow’s milk or other types of animal-based dairy products are not used. And while it’s true that oat milk is a relatively new entrant to the market, other types of plant-based beverages like horchata (which can occasionally contain animal milk) are immensely popular.

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Introduced to Latin America by Spanish colonial powers during the 16th century, the drink was traditionally made by soaking ground tiger nuts in water, and then adding sugar, cinnamon, and lemon or lime rind. Since then, each country has adopted its own unique twist on horchata to include more native ingredients, such as:

  • El Salvador, where it’s often prepared with ground morro seeds
  • Mexico, which is where the most “well-known” version originates from, made using soaked rice
  • Other Latin American countries also use ground and soaked peanuts and cashews

Following several state-led school feeding programmes in the 1940s, soy milk also became much more popular in the region. Some thirty years later, many Latin American countries had also become major producers of soybean – particularly Brazil.

A barista pulls shots of espresso into a Nude oat milk paper cup.

Plant milk consumption in Latin America today

Latin America’s interest in commercially-available plant milks – including oat milk – has slowly and steadily grown over the past few years. While the region’s market hasn’t historically experienced as much development and diversification as other countries, its value is set to reach US $3.24 billion by 2028.

The relatively higher costs of manufacturing commercial plant milks has certainly constrained market growth in Latin America – especially considering that the average income per capita is lower compared to North America and Western Europe (where oat milk in particular is much more prevalent).

This, however, has been changing. As the region’s middle-class population – and their disposable income – grows, consumers are willing to spend more on higher-quality plant milks. But potentially even more significant, sustainability and health are becoming increasingly important to Latin American consumers – especially given the high rates of lactose intolerance among the population. One study from The Lancet found that up to 38% of Latinos are lactose intolerant to some degree, compared to 28% of people in northern, southern, and western Europe.

Martín Dalla Zorza is a journalist from Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is also the author of La Cafeteguía, a guide to coffee shops in Buenos Aires, and the co-founder and director of Club de Café, a specialty coffee subscription service. 

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“The most widely consumed plant milks in Latin America are almond, soy and oat,” he says. “Coconut and rice are the least widespread.

Soy is becoming less popular because consumers who value the environment are drinking less of it,” he adds. “People who opt for non-dairy milks are paying more attention to the product, their relationship with it, and sustainability as a whole.”

An emerging oat milk market

José Sojo owns Café Delirante, a coffee shop in Bariloche, Argentina. He says that just three years ago, oat milk wasn’t commercially available in his area.

“It wasn’t popular because so few people had heard about it,” he tells me. “Today, it accounts for 10% of the drinks we serve. 

“A while ago we offered it at no extra charge, which helped to increase demand significantly,” he adds.

Pedro Lisboa is the Head of Coffee Relations at Nude, an oat milk brand in São Paulo, Brazil.

“In comparison to the US and Europe, the Latin American plant milk market has been growing slowly,” Pedro explains. “While the US has more than a 20% market share, Brazil’s is below 3%. 

“Soy milk has been a driving force in the Argentinian market, while cashew milk is also big in Brazil as the country is a prominent producer,” he adds. “There are more options in bigger cities, but it’s still difficult as many supermarkets don’t have dedicated shelf space for plant milks.”

Judges point to the best latte art design at an oat milk latte art throwdown.

Impact on the Latin American specialty coffee sector

Both Pedro and Martin agree that specialty coffee shops have played an important role in introducing oat milk to the Latin American market. 

Martin in particular believes that as the growing middle class is able to travel internationally, people are trying plant milks in coffee shops abroad, and then returning home and requesting more options in their local cafés.

“Specialty coffee adopted plant milks before other foodservice businesses, especially in countries where drinking coffee with milk is common,” he says. “Coffee shops in trendier neighbourhoods or places frequented by tourists have been pioneers in this regard.”

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In turn, the growing trend of barista-formulated plant milks – especially oat-based options – has been impossible to ignore.

Alexander Appel is a co-founder of Nude. He explains how oat milk brands, including in Latin America, are using this to their advantage.

“Both new and traditional brands are releasing barista-formulated versions with pictures of latte art on the packaging,” he tells me. “They are realising the economic and brand positioning advantages this has for them.”

Potential challenges ahead

Given that the Latin American plant milk market is less developed than others around the world, there are still obstacles ahead regarding its growth.

Pedro says: “In Buenos Aires, plant milks were offered later than in other countries in the region. This initially meant the product was more expensive and less well-known. 

“However, coffee shops have bet on offering plant milks as an opportunity to be at the forefront,” he adds.

It will certainly take time before plant milks will become as popular as dairy in Central and South American coffee shops, but Martin believes there are pathways to do so.

“Plant milks can mask or change coffee flavour,” he tells me. “This requires re-educating the palate, which can only be achieved in the long term.

“The greatest opportunity for growth is in the cold coffee segment because drinking coffee with milk and ice can be a novel experience for many Latin American consumers, so you can add to it by using plant milks,” he adds.

A customer stirs a milk-based coffee drink.

Plant milks might still be catching on the Latin American market, but recent growth is undeniable – especially for oat milk.

“Price has been a big determining factor in the adoption of plant milks, but its increasing presence in supermarkets and health stores will improve visibility and allow for more competitive pricing,” Martin concludes.

Ultimately, as demand for plant milk in Latin America increases, so will its availability – and variety. And we’re likely to see oat milk come out on top, particularly in specialty coffee shops.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article exploring the importance of Latino representation in specialty coffee.

Photo credits: William de Paula

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