Pass the oat milk! It’s time that coffee shops stop charging extra for non-dairy milk

Those who can't tolerate dairy shouldn't be penalized or expected to pay extra for their choice of milk

By Joy Saha

Staff Writer

Published May 23, 2023 4:30PM (EDT)

Holding a drink at a cafe (Getty Images/Virojt Changyencham)
Holding a drink at a cafe (Getty Images/Virojt Changyencham)

As much as I love my homemade Moka Pot coffee in the morning, there are days when I enjoy treating myself to a cup of coffee from my local cafe. Coffee has long been both a necessity and an essential part of my self-care routine. And I'll never turn down a coffee run to fuel my prolonged addiction. But oftentimes, it comes at the expense of my wallet, especially as someone who is severely lactose intolerant.

If you've ever ordered a cup of coffee with non-dairy milk — be it almond, soy, oat, coconut or pea alternatives — you're probably all too familiar with the surcharge that comes with it. Whether it's food sensitivities or taste preferences, more coffee drinkers are opting for non-dairy milk in their drinks and cafes, in turn, are upping their prices. Take for example Starbucks and Dunkin', where customers can pay up to $1 extra for non-dairy milks.

Within the U.S., most non-dairy milks cost more than dairy milk because the government subsidizes the dairy industry. That has only increased in recent years, thanks to an ongoing pandemic that hit dairy producers and regional dairy processors hard. Back in March of last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced an additional investment of $80 million in the Dairy Business Innovation (DBI) Initiatives. Just two years prior, DBI awarded $18.4 million to three current Initiatives at University of Tennessee, Vermont Agency for Food and Marketing and University of Wisconsin, and $1.8 million to a new initiative at California State University Fresno.

What actually constitutes "milk" has changed fairly recently, after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) acknowledged that PBMAs, or "plant-based milk alternatives" can use the term "milk" in their labeling and marketing; although, it also recommended they include a "voluntary nutrient statement" that conveys how the product compares with milk based on the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service fluid milk substitutes criteria.

It's only a matter of time till non-dairy milks will be deemed a part of the greater dairy industry. But aside from mere labels, non-dairy milks are, on average, slightly more expensive than cow's milk. That's all due to the additional labor needed to first grow the crops (either grains, nuts or fruit), then process and package them. It's worth noting, however, that the actual price differences aren't that great in comparison.

 I'll never turn down a coffee run to fuel my prolonged addiction. But oftentimes, it comes at the expense of my wallet, especially as someone who is severely lactose intolerant.

Per Bon Appetit's Ali Francis, the least expensive store-bought whole milk was two cents per ounce, from Walmart, while almond milk was four cents per ounce and oat was six cents per ounce. Yet cafes are going berserk with their upcharges, so much so that a simple non-dairy milk latte can cost anywhere between $10 to $15.

The increasingly high costs of non-dairy beverages feels more like punishment to lactose sensitive drinkers, who can't control what their bodies are able to tolerate. Lactose sensitivity also seems to be on the rise, as noted by NBC News. About two-thirds of people around the world have lactose malabsorption, or difficulty digesting lactose, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH). In the U.S., lactose malabsorption is more prevalent among Black and Indigenous people, Asian Americans and Latinos than non-Latino white people. So, is charging extra for non-dairy milks also a little bit racist? Perhaps it is.

It's about time that coffee shops stop charging extra for non-dairy milk because coffee lovers, especially those with dietary restrictions, should be able to enjoy a cup of coffee without stressing about the extra costs that come with their drink. For some, coffee is a must-have in the morning. And for others, coffee is purely an occasional treat. Regardless, cafes should support a more inclusive coffee culture, that doesn't punish those who are trying to be more sustainable or cater to their personal preferences.

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That being said, several cafes have already begun removing additional non-dairy milk charges. Caribou Coffee dropped the extra fee for non-dairy milk on May 4th, but only for those who sign up to be a member of Caribou Perks, the chain's loyalty program. Customers also need to order their beverages through the app if they want the reduced prices.

Caribou reportedly charges 80 cents more for non-dairy milks in any espresso-based beverage, according to VegNews. And approximately 20% of their drinks are made with either oat or almond milk. So, the recent initiative, while not entirely clear-cut, comes with a few conditions to allow for the chain to still make a profit.

In addition to Caribou, there's Peet's Coffee, which dropped the additional 80 cents for non-dairy milk for the month of April as part of a trial-run for a possible policy change. Blue Bottle even offers surcharge-free almond and oat milk.

It's possible for cafes to drop the extra charges. And hopefully, the cafes that have already done so will serve as inspiration for others. Let's make coffee enjoyable and accessible for everyone.

By Joy Saha

Joy Saha is a staff writer at Salon. She writes about food news and trends and their intersection with culture. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Coffee Coffee Shops Commentary Dietary Restrictions Food Sensitivities Non-dairy Milk