Beyond Milk #2: Consumers’ Sound Bites

What do Japanese consumers have to say about plant-based milk?

Hello, Market Shakers! 

Today’s the perfect day to take a peek at Japanese consumers’ perspective on the milk revolution in the making.

With new plant-based milk—almond, oat, to name a few, coming into stores, are consumers embracing the plant-based alt wave? Do they ditch soy milk, a classic beverage in Japan, for oat?

Summary of this edition

  • Key takeaways in a nutshell

  • Health and wellness trends are pushing Japanese consumers to go dairy-free.

  • Consumers’ feedback

  • What challenges do new plant-based milk face with Japanese consumers?

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Key takeaways in a nutshell

Soy milk is a part of the Japanese diet and is not necessarily a substitute for cow milk. However, Japanese consumers are certainly consuming soy milk for health reasons, whether they like its taste or not. Many local recipes are also soy milk-based, and with home cooking trending in Japan, soy milk consumption has increased. 

However, the category is losing ground to almond milk, growing since 2017, driven by health and beauty claims. However, like with soy, almond milk ‘nutty’ flavor is a barrier for Japanese consumers. Pricing is also a concern, especially for younger generations. 

Aside from vegan consumers and consumers with a strong interest in health claims, other plant-based milks are not well known in Japan. But there’s a great potential for this market, Japanese consumers being curious about new products and seeking diet changes amidst the pandemic—and beyond this challenging period. 

Health and wellness trends are pushing older Japanese consumers to go dairy-free.

In 2020, the Japan Dairy Association published a detailed report on milk consumption and sales in Japan for 2019. They noted a general decrease in daily consumption.

The decline was substantial with men in their 30s and above (-6%) and women in their teens (-19.1%) and 20s (-12.8%). The report further advanced that consumers mainly ditch cow milk to avoid all the not-so-glamorous lactose intolerance symptoms (bloating, diarrhea, gas). Diet reasons came next, for they think cow milk is high in calories.

Consumers’ concerns with lactose intolerance are not surprising. The dairy industry has been fighting hard to debunk the firmly rooted belief that a considerable percentage of the population cannot process cow milk for years. The Japan Dairy Association goes as far as explaining that “drinking cow milk is essential to our health, even if drinking it creates some discomfort.” However, they’re losing some ground with adult consumers as Japanese medical professionals don’t hesitate to recommend avoiding cow milk. Public authorities also recommend consuming plant-based milk. 

Updated January 2021 for the year 2020, the survey further shows a drop in consumption, with 22.3% of consumers not drinking cow milk at all (13.6% in 2019).

Japanese youth, hooked on cow milk?

In Japan, the Japanese dairy industry is still scoring high with elementary to high schools, 94% offering cow milk for lunch. Are all Japanese onboard with milk at school? It seems like it, at least for now. When a local city in Niigata Prefecture gave up cow milk at school in 2014, the experiment was frowned upon by the population. At the time, a survey indicated that 72% of Japanese parents stood against milk-free meals. No more recent survey came upon the subject, but it would be interesting to see if the introduction of more plant-based milk could eventually tip the scale. 

Soy milk, essential to the Japanese diet since the 70s

Soy has been around for centuries in Asia, and it’s a staple ingredient for Japanese cuisine. 

Soy milk, however, became widely available in Japan only after the Second World War, when the country was suffering from malnutrition and needed to fight foot shortage. In a few decades, unflavored and flavored soy milk made its way to every supermarket shelves in Japan. The foodservice industry also came to serve soy as a replacement for cow milk. 

Overall, Japanese consumers have a very positive perception of soy milk. They consume it for both its taste—though some feel its flavor can be too strong and health benefits. High in protein and low in fat, they’ll turn themselves to soy milk for diet and to maintain their weight. 

In 2018, My Voice conducted an online survey on soy milk consumption which was very positive for the industry. At least 43.5% of consumers had purchased soy milk in the past year, either as a beverage (54.2%) or cooking (21.5%). The top reasons to consume soy milk are health (48.6%) and nutritional values (42.2%), followed by taste (33.4%), and finally, to replace cow milk (27.7%). 

The survey also revealed that consumers expect soy milk to help health concerns such as hypertension, hyperlipidemia, osteoporosis, gut health, and cholesterol. Furthermore, both men and women in their 20s and 30s think soy milk helps with skin issues and consider it helps with beauty from the inside out. 

In parallel, the craving for almond milk picked up speed in Japan, and oat milk appeared in the rearview mirror.

Almond milk captured the attention of consumers. 

Last year, Tetra Pak’s Japan office explained to the Food Journal that a shift occurred in 2019, with “the number of new almond milk products outpacing soy milk.” That same year the Almond Milk Laboratory surveyed Japanese women living in Tokyo on almond milk, beauty, and health. Their questionnaire revealed that 87% of urban women who care about their physical appearance and health are aware of almond milk, and 43.8% have tried (an increase of 9.1% compared to a similar study conducted in 2017). Beyond beauty interests, almond milk is perceived as healthy, a vitamin E source, and low in calories. 

However, compared to soy milk, almond milk is often perceived as expensive. The ‘almond effect’ is mostly happening with consumers in their 50s and 60s, who typically spend more on food than younger generations. 

Oat milk is still a curiosity for Japanese consumers. 

Oat milk is a latecomer to the Japanese market, with limited availability going back to mid-2018. But its appeal is increasing.

Aside from vegan circles, Japanese news and trendy web magazines have written about its boom in Europe and the United States. On top of the media coverage, cafe chains like Starbuck and Dean & Deluca started offering oat milk as a substitute for cow or soy milk. Still, oat milk is a novelty for many Japanese consumers, for they don’t know about oat and alternative products not in their mindset yet.

Before its launch on the Japanese market, Alpro did some heavy groundwork with educating consumers through digital ads, sample distribution, and more. Coca-Cola Japan launched its first oat milk in March 2021. At the same time, the soft drink giant started an advertising campaign offering samples to 500 selected consumers. 

The potential for oat is there, but there’s some work to do for brands to make it.

Consumers’ feedback

We interviewed Japanese consumers to get their thoughts on plant-based milk. Without surprise, they all talked about soy and almond milk, while close to none had tried oat milk or other dairy-free milk.

Japanese consumers in their 60-70s

  • Makiko, 72, Married

Makiko recalls drinking soy milk for the first time at her elementary school in the early 60s. Soy milk was served daily to the children to fight malnutrition. Today, she’d rather have a glass of cow milk. 

I don’t drink plant-based milk. I prefer the richer flavor of cow milk. However, I use soy milk when I cook.

  • Yutaro, 65, Married

Yutaro drinks soy milk for breakfast because he considers soy milk healthier than cow milk. He buys the 200ml bottle from the brand Kikkoman. He also suspects he could be lactose intolerant. He explained that doctors and public institutions in Japan promote a shift from animal milk to plant-based milk for health and medical reasons.

While I like soy milk the most, I’m not against trying alternatives. However, I don’t like almond milk at all. The taste is too strong. I have tried flavored soy milk like Kikkoman’s Annin tofu and liked it.

Japanese consumers in their late 40-50s

  • Kaori, 55, Married

Kaori drinks soy milk mixed with her coffee for breakfast. She buys one-liter packs at her local supermarket and makes her tofu from soy milk. She’s very health-conscious, open to trying new food but cares about authenticity and quality. 

I don’t like the taste of almond milk. It’s too strong. But I like to use almond milk when I cook Asian food, especially soups.

  • Nakazo, 42, Married

Nakazo recalls being told for over 40 years that cow milk is healthy and helps with physical growth. He drank cow milk a lot when he was young. He stopped drinking cow milk, however, and felt healthier and lighter. He changed his diet in 2019 out of concerns for the environment. 

At first, I didn’t like soy milk’s taste. But one time, I tried a local freshly made organic soy milk and fell in love with its flavor. I also tried almond milk, but almond production is not sustainable. So I limit myself to drinking almond milk a few times per year.

Japanese consumers in their 30s

  • Kosuke, 32, Single

Kosuke buys soy milk from time to time. He likes to drink “Banana au lait” with soy milk in the morning or after lunch to refresh his mind. At night, he wants to eat tonyu-nabe (soy milk pot). He thinks soy milk is a natural choice for the Japanese palate because Japanese cuisine has a long relationship with soy products (tofu, yuba, miso, ofu). He noticed more plant-based milk products in Japanese supermarkets today but feels the packaging is not attractive. 

I have no idea what’s the taste of oat, coconut, or almond. These products don’t look good, and I’m afraid to spend money on them. Suppose I get a chance to try samples at the supermarket or someone’s home, maybe. But for sure, I’m not buying these otherwise.

  • Ayana, 30, Married

Ayana is concerned about the environment and animal cruelty. She is a pescatarian and cooks at home. She drinks soy and almond milk because they are available at Aeon and are at a reasonable price.

I would love to try oat milk, but either I don’t find it, or when I do, it’s expensive...

Japanese consumers in their 20s 

  • Yukari, 25, Single

Yukari is lactose intolerant and tries to live a healthy lifestyle. She likes soy milk because it’s accessible and cheaper than almond milk, double the price. She buys one-liter packs from Max Value (local supermarket, Nagoya). It’s an organic house brand, cheaper than Kikkoman. But sometimes, it’s sold out. 

I put soy milk in my coffee but also drink it throughout the day. I like soy milk because of its mild taste. Almond milk has a strong nutty flavor.

  • Yuri, 29, Single (living with her parents)

Yuri feels soy milk has a robust and rich flavor that she can sense in her coffee or a stew. So she enjoys drinking almond and rice milk with her coffee. However, she doesn’t buy these products often, for she is strongly concerned about additives. She prefers drinking cow milk rather than plant-based products that would contain too many additives. At home, everyone reaches out to the cow milk. It’s very natural and unconscious for her family. Nobody else drinks plant-based milk. 

In my opinion, Japanese people drink soy milk because they enjoy it. We don’t particularly view soy milk as a substitute for cow milk, for like, if you’re lactose intolerant. It’s just part of our diet. I think only health-conscious and upper-middle-class people are aware of all these new ‘exotic’ plant-based milk such as oat or nuts. You can only find these new products at expensive supermarkets.

  • Hiroshi, 25, Single

Hiroshi has only tried soy, but he doesn’t like the taste at all. The people he knows drink cow milk and are not talking about plant-based milk at all. 

I know my dad (55 years old) drinks soy milk with his coffee. He has some health-related issues with cow milk.

  • Keiko, 22, Single (living with her parents)

Keiko drinks soy and almond milk regularly. In the beginning, though, she didn’t like soy milk’s taste too much. She feels almond milk has a sweeter taste resembling cow milk. 

I’m curious to try other varieties of plant-based milk. But in Japan, you don’t find them. At least not right now.

What challenges do new plant-based milk face with Japanese consumers

When novelty rhythms with unknown. 

There’s no doubt that Japanese consumers are curious about new products coming into stores. Novelty, especially with a product that brings a story, speaks to them. They’re also particularly attracted to functional and health claims. But their high expectations with taste, quality, and ingredients, can be a barrier for innovative and unknown products. Because they are price-sensitive, they can be reluctant to try a product they do not understand. 

Let’s add, not substitute.

While Japanese consumers use soy milk instead of cow milk, they do not view soy milk as a milk substitute. It’s just one more option on the table. 

That’s probably how almond milk, oat milk, and all the new variety of plant-based milk can make their way into the market. Clever marketing countering dairy products may not be as efficient as talking about all the health benefits, especially with older consumers with medical conditions. The environmental aspect comes as a secondary angle to convince consumers. 

That’s all, folks!

Next week, we will move on to the products you can find on the Japanese market and where consumers can purchase them. 

Stay tuned for our shelf sweep coming in your inbox next week. 

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