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Is Starbucks milking the vegan trend?

The coffee conglomerate is expanding its vegan menu with coconut milk. Does this reflect a real cultural shift?

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    Coffee giant Starbucks has announced that it will start serving coconut milk as a non-soy dairy alternative beginning Feb. 17.
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Move over, soy – coconut milk is where it’s at.

Beginning Feb. 17, Starbucks will be serving the non-soy dairy alternative at branches across the United States, the coffee giant announced Thursday.

Specifically, the company will offer as an ingredient the certified vegan Starbucks Single Origin Sumatra Coconut Milk, made from coconuts grown on the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

"Delivering the options our customers want is always the highlight of my day," Christine Barone, Starbucks vice president of category and brand management, said in the company’s statement. “We are excited to hear back what further customer and partner customization coconut milk inspires.”

The new addition is a response to an overwhelming number of requests for an alternative to dairy and soy on MyStarbucksIdea.com, a forum where customers can post suggestions and improvements for new and current products.

It also makes Starbucks the latest of a number of US food establishments – such as Mexican fast-casual chain Chipotle and burger joint White Castle – that are serving offering a growing number of vegetarian and vegan alternatives.

Is it a passing fad, or a real shift in food culture?

The figures seem to suggest the latter: Meat consumption in the United States has been falling for close to a decade, according to a 2013 report by research firm Packaged Facts. About 12 percent of US adults strongly agree and about 19 percent somewhat agree that they are eating many meatless or vegetarian meals, Packaged Facts publisher David Sprinkle said in the firm’s statement.

The US Department of Agriculture also reported that daily per capita meat consumption has dropped to 0.36 lbs a day in 2012 from 0.4 lbs in 2004. It may not sound like much, but the USDA recommends only 0.21 lbs of meat per day for the average 2,000-calorie diet – which means that even that tiny drop could be significant. Overall dairy consumption has declined as well, with Americans consuming less milk, cream, and ice cream but more butter and cheese. 

There is also a growing number of prominent faces who support avoiding animal products: Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres changed her diet to vegan in 2008, and R&B star Usher did the same in 2012. Al Gore, following in the footsteps of former president Bill Clinton, went vegan in 2013, while Bill Gates has said that the future of food is “beyond meat.”

Even President Obama joined in, signing the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act in 2010 with the goal of improving child nutrition in schools nationwide. (The law is being heavily debated in school districts across the country, but that’s another story.)

At the same time, majority of young adults are more conscious about how their food choices affect their health, the environment, and others around them, one study suggested.

As The Washington Post put it: “For millennials, food isn’t just food. It’s community.”

From that point of view, it’s not surprising that more businesses are making a change. Coconut milk latte, anyone?

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