Gerri Tucker knew exactly what she wanted when she entered the milk aisle at Mariano's: Silk's Almond and Cashew blend, which in bold lettering boasts of 10 grams of protein per serving.

"It's rich, it's thick, it has a wonderful taste," said Tucker, 74, who was turned on to the milk substitute by neighbors who swear by it. "It has everything I need."

Tucker, a retired massage therapist, gave up dairy 45 years ago because of lactose intolerance, but she only recently discovered her ideal replacement. Soy milk, the only alternative for a long time, upset her stomach, and almond milk, which has dominated the scene for the past 15 years, was a little thin for her taste.

Now the dairy aisle is crowded with milk alternatives made with cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, oat, rice, hemp, pea, and bananas, many with sweetened or vanilla-flavored variations and fortified with extra nutrients.

Sales of plant- and nut-based milks, which sell for more than twice the price of dairy milk, jumped 44% between 2013 and 2018, to nearly $2.4 billion last year, according to market research firm Euromonitor, as tastier options emerged and consumers cut back on animal-based food for reasons including digestion, health, ethics or environment.

The plant-based explosion has caused headaches for the dairy industry, which for years has been grappling with falling milk consumption and sales. Though dairy milk is still in 95% of U.S. households, per capita consumption has fallen 25% since 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Retail sales of dairy milk declined 18.8% from 2014 to 2018, to $15.6 billion, and are projected to drop to $13.7 billion by 2023, according to Chicago-based market research firm Mintel.

The dairy industry is fighting to compete by introducing new products, making farms more efficient and pushing the government to prohibit nondairy products from being labeled as "milk."

The Food and Drug Administration, concerned that the term "milk" leads consumers to believe plant-based beverages have the same nutritional attributes as cow's milk, is reviewing 13,000 comments submitted on the matter before deciding whether to issue a new rule. The outcome is being watched closely as battles simmer over terminology in the fast-growing plant-based protein market, including whether meatless burgers can be called burgers.

The pressure from the plant-based revolution comes as the dairy industry already contends with a long list of challenges: low commodity milk prices, limited export markets because of the trade war, fierce competition from other beverages like bottled water and smaller households that have dampened demand for a gallon. More than 2,700 licensed dairy farms across the country closed last year, including 30 in Illinois, according to the USDA.

Not helping dairy's cause are recent undercover videos recorded at farms, the latest of which showed calves being hit, kicked and dragged by some workers at Fair Oaks Farms in northwest Indiana, a large dairy known for promoting the good care of its cows.

Fair Oaks and Fairlife, which makes a popular brand of ultrafiltered milk and counted Fair Oaks among its supplying farms, swiftly promised reforms and increased animal welfare audits, and Mintel senior beverage analyst Caleb Bryant doubts the dairy industry as a whole will feel much impact. The primary reason people consume alternatives to dairy is digestive health, Bryant said.

But the images of suffering cows could be the final straw that pushes some people toward dairy alternatives now that there are so many to choose from.

"It solidified my decision to go away from dairy," Gary Hebding, 30, said of the videos as he put a carton of Simple Truth's unsweetened vanilla almond milk in his basket at Mariano's. "You can't really abuse almonds too much."

The rise of plant-based milks

The recent boom in alternative milks was spurred by the success of almond milk, because companies that wanted in on the action sought ways to stand out from the pack by tapping other plant sources and touting specific health benefits, Bryant said.

Investors last year sank $200 million into startups making plant-based dairy alternatives, more than any other food and beverage category, according to a recent report in industry publication Food and Tech Connect. California-based Ripple Foods got $65 million for its pea milk, which it claims contains as much protein and calcium as dairy but less sugar, and uses far less water than growing almonds.

Oat milk is the fastest growing dairy alternative, popularized by coffee shops that find its creaminess good for making lattes. When Chicago-based Intelligentsia introduced Oatly, a Swedish brand, to its milk lineup in 2016, it saw orders for almond and soy milk drop dramatically within just a couple of weeks as consumers made the switch.

"It was crazy, it was just something people responded really well to," said Intelligentsia CEO James McLaughlin. More than 10% of drinks sold at Intelligentia's coffee bars now include oat milk, while 4.1% use almond milk and 2% use 2% milk. The coffee company also distributes Oatly in the U.S.

Starbucks, one of the largest milk consumers in the U.S., introduced oat milk this year in select Reserve locations in New York, Seattle and San Francisco.

Chicago-based Quaker Oats, owned by Pepsi, muscled in this year with the launch of its Oat Beverage, bringing oat milk into more retail locations than any other brand. It avoided the "milk" term in case the FDA forbids it.

Quaker uses a fine milling process to isolate the oat bran, rich in heart-healthy beta-glucan, which allows it to make a heart health claim on the packaging that it hopes serves as a differentiator, said Koen Burghouts, the company's vice president of innovation. It also added chicory root to increase the fiber content of the product to 4 grams per serving.

Despite the health-focused marketing, nutritionists warn consumers to read the labels on dairy alternatives carefully. Many brands have added sugars or sweeteners and some types of plant-based milks, such as rice milk, have little protein, said Ginger Hultin, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, in its comment to the FDA regarding use of the term "milk", suggested that rather than ban dairy terminology for nondairy products, it should require plant-based milks to disclose on packaging when certain key nutrients are present in lower amounts than in dairy products, such as Vitamin D, calcium and protein. That's especially important for young children, who get a lot of their nutrients from milk, it said.

Dairy fights back

The dairy industry is arming itself against the competition with innovations of its own, after years of disinvestment.

Dairy Management Inc, based in Rosemont, Ill., and funded by a mandatory fee on farmers, has shifted its focus from traditional advertising to working with milk manufacturers to launch new products that address the consumer interest in health.

The group helped launch Fairlife, which uses a special filtration process to produce a lactose-free milk that is higher in protein and lower in sugar than regular milk.

The group also worked with Dean Foods to launch TruMoo After Dark, a line of adult-focused milks with flavors like "vanilla and chai spice" and "dark chocolate salted caramel." Those products are indulgences but also can be used to highlight milk's melatonin content as a way to promote sleep, said Paul Ziemnisky, vice president of innovation at the organization.

Despite its challenges, dairy milk is seeing growth in some segments. Whole milk sales are rising as wellness trends reject the anti-fat ethos that drove dieting culture 20 years ago, as are sales of flavored and lactose-free milks, Ziemnisky said.

Some companies are collaborating directly with dairy farmers to engineer milks that fit their needs. Intelligentsia, in addition to its oat milk investment, works with Kilgus Farms in Fairbury, Ill., to produce "supermilk" from its Jersey cows, a product that has even higher fat content than whole milk. The a2 Milk Company, which this year brought its product to the Chicago market, works with farmers on cow genetics to produce milk it claims doesn't cause digestive issues.

The a2 Milk Company, an Australian company with U.S. headquarters in Boulder, Colo., claims many people who have trouble digesting dairy aren't intolerant of lactose but of the a1 protein naturally found in about a third of cows, so it creates a supply chain of milk sourced only from cows that produce the a2 protein. The brand is 11% of the milk market in Australia, and hopes to find converts in the U.S.

"We feel this is part of the savior of the U.S. dairy system," said CEO Blake Waltrip. "There are many dairy farmers that are beginning to switch their cows to a2."

At their small dairy farm in Campton Hills, Ill., near St. Charles in Chicago's western suburbs, Andy and Sarah Lenkaitis have invested heavily in other innovations to remain viable amid the pressures squeezing the industry. Part of the goal was to make the job more comfortable for themselves. They also want the farm to survive so that their son, Lucas, now 11 months old, has the option of taking it over in the future.

They built a new barn for their 90 cows that is almost fully automated: A giant squeegeelike contraption crosses the floors at regular intervals to scrape the manure into a pit underneath the barn, where it is then pumped through a machine that squeezes out all the liquid, to be used as fertilizer, while the leftover fiber is laid over rubber mattresses in the stall beds where the cows rest. Another machine, a Roomba-like robot they have nicknamed Frank, pushes feed toward the cows when it gets spread out while they eat.

Two robotic milkers operate 24 hours a day, allowing the farm's cows - referred to by their individual nicknames - to enter and milk when they wish, typically three times a day. Enticed by feed pellets, the cows line up at the machine like they're waiting for the bathroom at a nightclub. The machines can detect which cow is entering and attach and detach the milkers from the teets without human hands.

With cameras positioned on all of their cows and equipment, Andy and Sarah Lenkaitis monitor the operation through closed-circuit TVs or data pushed to their smartphones. Sensors that hang around the cows' necks monitor how much they are eating and ruminating - when they chew, burp it up and keep chewing - and flag issues suggesting a cow may be unwell.

The system allows the farm to make do with just one full-time herdsman, the same amount of labor it used when it had less than half the number of cows. The farm's milk goes to a Dean's processing plant in Rockford and gets made into cottage cheese, sour cream and other soft products.

While a major investment, the system also allows the couple to spend time on other projects, such as developing public tours to educate consumers about dairy farming.

Sarah Lenkaitis, who grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin and studied dairy science in college, hopes inviting people to see their cutting-edge operation inspires a next generation of dairy farmers.

She and her husband also hope to encourage more consumers to keep cow's milk on the dinner table.

Andy Lenkaitis, an agricultural engineer who grew up on his family's livestock farm, said he is bothered by the marketing that suggests plant-based milk is better than the original.

"I don't feel threatened by the product itself, I feel threatened by the way it's presented," he said of the plant-based incursion. "That's what scares me."

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

Get News Alerts delivered directly to you.

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.