Before plant-based milks were showing up in the dairy cooler, before they were made of oats or almonds and before half of Americans regularly bought them, there was WestSoy and Rice Dream.

The shelf-stable cartons of dairy milk alternatives arrived decades before the term "plant-based milk" was in common use. These brands helped pioneer the category along with other now-familiar names.

But today's $3 billion plant-milk market is flooded with competitors and is quickly maturing, meaning that next wave of cow's milk converts will be harder to get.

To stand out, the legacy brands needed an update.

Nearly two years after Eden Prairie-based SunOpta bought the two brands for a combined $33 million, the revamp — including new formulas and packaging — is exceeding expectations. SunOpta also broadened and simplified the names, now just called Dream and West Life, to capture more shoppers.

West Life saw sales grow 30% in January while overall plant-based milk sales grew about 3% compared to the year before.

"Both of these brands have been around for decades and play different roles for different customers," said Mike Buick, SunOpta's senior vice president and general manager of plant-based foods and beverages.

SunOpta, a leading plant-based milk maker, makes most of its money manufacturing product for store brands and private label (like Costco's Kirkland Signature). In-house brands — like Dream and West Life — represents less than 10% of its roughly $900 million in annual sales.

The company is looking to double its plant-based business by 2025 compared to 2020 levels.

"I expect our brands will be part of our growth story as we bring innovation to market," Buick said.

Adding value

The new line of West Life "smoothie blends" pack 16 grams of protein per serving and give SunOpta better exposure to protein-seeking shoppers.

"If you think about plant-based milk — almond, coconut, oat — all of those offer less protein that traditional dairy milk," about 8 grams per serving, Buick said. "Protein is an unmet consumer need, so how can we bring products to market where you no longer have that trade-off?"

Consumer surveys also showed that many plant-based milks end up in smoothies, Buick said, and the West Life blends mean customers can avoid scooping protein powders.

For the new line of Dream rice milks, the "2%" and "whole" formula and package design are meant to be as close to a replacement for dairy milk as possible.

"Rice milk in particular has some inherent properties that make it closer to cow's milk," Buick said. "It's really subtle, so it works well in cereal and in baking."

Before buying Dream, SunOpta had already been producing it as a co-manufacturer.

Dream is not the only brand looking to emulate the look and feel of dairy to lure more customers. Last year So Delicious introduced Wondermilk and leading brand Silk introduced Nextmilk, meant to "closely mimic beloved dairy attributes," according to a news release from Danone North America, which owns the brands.

"Some consumers remain skeptical about plant-based food and beverages due to taste and texture," John Starkey, president of plant-based food and beverages at Danone North America, said a statement. "We're confident dairy lovers will want to cross the aisle."

The products are indicative of a new reality for plant-based foods: Many of those who are going to switch to plant-based have already done so.

As for the rest?

"The segment will have to create a clear and compelling reason for consumers to make the switch," according to a report on 2023 food trends by Datassential.

SunOpta CEO Joe Ennen said at an investor conference in January that plant-based milk is a "40-year overnight success story" and is continuing to grow.

"We have a lot of different ways to win in this business," Ennen said, since SunOpta is not tied to any one brand or type of product (soy, almond, oat) or packaging.

"An investor one time said in a gold rush, you want to be selling picks and shovels," Ennen said. "We represent that kind of picks-and-shovels model."