When Elmhurst Dairy closed its plant in Queens in 2016, the company had been selling milk in New York City for nearly a century. But the dairy–which started with a small farm in the Elmhurst neighborhood and grew to the massive bottling plant, becoming one of the largest dairy manufacturers on the East Coast–could no longer make the economics work. Milk sales were falling, competition was getting harder.
The company’s owner, in his eighties, decided to pivot: In 2017, it started making plant-based milks, and today it makes none at all from cows. In January, it released the first packaged peanut milk on the market. It also sells “milked” almonds, rice, oats, walnuts, hazelnuts, and cashews.
On the site of a processing and packaging facility in Elma, New York, owned by the dairy’s sister company, Steuben Foods, the dairy built a new facility for processing nuts, seeds, and grains. The plant uses a process that mechanically separates raw almonds or peanuts or grains of rice into all of the nutritional components–carbohydrates, protein, fiber, oils, micronutrients–and then reassembles them into a creamy, milk-like liquid.
Many other plant-based milks, by contrast, start with water and a mix of ingredients like xanthan gum or carrageenan to give a sense of creaminess, and then add a tiny amount of nut butter or paste. A lawsuit against one almond milk manufacturer alleged that the company’s product only contained 2% almonds.
“We bring in just the grains, nuts, and seeds, and start fresh from those products,” says food scientist Cheryl Mitchell, who developed the process Elmhurst–now called Elmhurst Milked–uses. “The other companies that are out there, it’s actually a formulated product . . . . they’re not adding enough nuts to get a nutritional value.”
Mitchell started developing plant-based milk in the 1970s with Rice Dream, but was frustrated with the process used at the time. “We started with just brown rice, [but] we ended up with this formulated product of a mixture of oils and stabilizers and gums and calcium carbonate to make it look more like milk,” she says. She left the company and spent five years researching an alternative process, eventually landing on the cold-milling “milking” technique now in use at Elmhurst Milked.
At the processing plant, a shipment of nuts or grains goes through a series of tanks that gently separate the individual nutritional components. In some cases, fiber is removed, but then protein and other nutrients are recombined into the final product. (The traditional methods of making something like almond milk lose this protein.) When fiber is removed, the company sells it for use in making baked goods or pasta, so the process produces no waste.
When Mitchell met Henry Schwartz, Elmhurst’s owner, and told him about the technology, Schwarz–who has switched to a mostly plant-based diet himself–saw the potential. “He realized that the trend was moving toward mostly plant-based foods,” she says. Milk sales have been declining for decades, and are expected to drop 11% in the U.S. from 2015 to 2020; nondairy milk, by contrast, is quickly growing in sales. From 2017 to 2020, the market is expected to grow from $2 billion to $3 billion.
Unlike some nondairy products, like milk made with pea protein, Elmhurst Milked isn’t trying to replicate the taste of cow milk. The hazelnut milk tastes like hazelnuts; the almond milk tastes a little like almonds. Peanut milk tastes like peanuts (a chocolate peanut milk tastes a little like peanut butter cups). While peanut milk isn’t entirely unheard of–State Bird Provisions, a restaurant in San Francisco, has sold it as a wildly popular dessert–Elmhurst Milked is the first to sell it on grocery shelves.
The company sees new culinary possibilities in its products, Mitchell says. It is also developing non-milk-like products, including a replacement for egg whites, and a hemp protein that is designed to replace chicken. “We’re at a totally new era of food,” she says. “We just unlocked a whole new door of ingredients.”