Got milk? Yes, but not as we used to know it, Jim

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Sales of whole milk products are growing
Sales of whole milk products are growing

Related tags Dairy Saturated fat

While sales of plain dairy milk have been declining for years, and US yogurt production has dropped off after peaking in 2014, new data shows the continued growth of cheese, butter, and ready-to-drink coffee, yogurt drinks and protein beverages featuring dairy milk, suggesting that the growing interest in all things plant-based has not prompted a mass consumer exodus away from dairy, but that consumption habits are changing.

According to IRI data for calendar year 2017, US retail sales of white milk were down 2.4% in measured channels, while sales of plant-based alternatives were up 4%. However, sales of flavored milk were up 1.8%, lactose free milk sales were up 13.6%, yogurt drink sales were up 19.2%, and sales of refrigerated ready to drink coffee – which is often blended with dairy milk – rose 22.8%.

“In the morning, while people might not be pouring white milk on cereal, they are getting dairy different ways in the morning,” ​said Paul Ziemnisky, executive vice president of global innovation partnerships for Dairy Management, an organization funded by America’s dairy farmers and importers and tasked with driving consumption.

“Maybe they’re having Greek yogurt with a granola, or a latte from Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts with 70-80% milk, or a McDonalds McCafe frappe, or a higher protein chocolate or strawberry milk.

"Consumers think of milk as ​[a source of] calcium, but there’s a big opportunity for the industry to remind them of the high quality protein message.

He added: “But we’ve got to be more relevant with flavor as well as function. There’s a big flavor opportunity in dairy milk. If you look at plant-based beverages, 47% of them are flavored, with vanilla being the #1 flavor.

"We’re already seeing data suggesting that allowing 1% flavored milk back in schools is driving milk consumption up in schools that offer it.”

per capita milk consumption
dairy sales data Dairy Management Inc June 2018
Source: Dairy Management Inc
Source USDA NASS - National Agricultural Statistics Service
Source: USDA NASS (National Agricultural Statistics Service)

Whole milk fat products are gaining traction

Whole milk fat products have also been gaining traction as shoppers seek 4% milk fat options in the milk, yogurt, cream cheese, natural cheese, cottage cheese, sour cream and frozen novelties categories, according to IRI data, with the percentage share of total milk increasing from 33% in 2012 to more than 40% in the first five months of 2018.

Data collated by the National Milk Producers Federation, meanwhile, shows that per capita domestic dairy consumption (milk equivalent of all dairy products) has been steadily rising over the past thirty years, Ziemnisky told FoodNavigator-USA.

In other words, just because sales of low fat fluid white milk are losing ground to plant-based alternatives does not necessarily mean that consumers are ditching dairy across the board owing to environmental, health or animal welfare concerns, he said. The dynamics are just different in each category, which means different messaging may resonate. 


Do the same messages resonate in fluid milk vs butters and spreads vs ice cream?

In the milk aisle, for example, attempts to pit the nutritional and clean label credentials of a glass of ‘real milk’ vs its more ‘processed’ plant-based counterparts with lengthy ingredients lists have had limited success.

In the spreads aisle, by contrast, the ‘real food’ positioning is really resonating for dairy butter, which has continued to gain traction over vegetable-oil-based margarines and spreads as consumers see it as more natural and less processed, with a simpler, cleaner label, which they also associate with health and wholesomeness (click HERE​), despite butter’s high saturated fat content, he said.

“It’s about real food, less processed food that’s made in a traditional way that people can understand.”

In the milk, yogurt, and cottage cheese aisles, meanwhile, whole milk, full fat, higher calorie but more satiating dairy options are gaining traction – in part because they have a better mouthfeel and are more satiating; while in the ice cream category, arguably more ‘processed,’ low-fat products with lengthy ingredients lists but fewer calories from brands such as Halo Top, Enlightened and Arctic Zero are winning over consumers. 


“Consumers don’t choose fats - or any other food - just based on its nutritional profile. They’re looking for taste, convenience, cost, sourcing, traceability, processing, GMOs, all of these things.” ​​

Jenna Bell, Pollock Communications​​

Graph​: Results of a listener poll during FoodNavigator-USA’s recent healthy fats webinar​.

'There’s so much more to milk than just the white gallon'

All of which serves as a reminder that consumers have different preoccupations depending on the category and depending on the usage occasion, and that taste, emotional need states and other factors are just as important as nutrition and sustainability when making decisions, said Ziemnisky.

Sales of chocolate milk are growing both because of the flavor but also as a ​[sports] recovery beverage. And then you’ve got brands like Fairlife​ that meet demand for more protein and less sugar and hit $250m in sales last year.”

Rather than focusing doggedly on arresting declining sales of plain milk, he said, the new ‘Undeniably Dairy’ campaign spans a broad range of dairy categories that reflect changing eating patterns.

“There’s so much more to milk than just the white gallon, so we’re really pivoting to meet the evolving lifestyles of consumers.”

Dairy vs plant-based ‘milk’

Asked about the particular challenges in the fluid milk category, where dairy milk is losing ground to almond, cashew, coconut and other plant-based alternatives, National Dairy Council chief science officer Greg Miller, PhD, said: “There’s a lot of misinformation on the internet about nutrition and health and the loudest voices seem to be coming from the vegan arena.

“This is unfortunate because consumers don’t realize that a glass of milk has 8g of protein while a glass of almond milk has 1g. Soy has more protein but sales of that are declining. Milk also contains other nutrients that plant-based beverages do not, and even when they do fortify them, they only add calcium and vitamin D, whereas milk contains potassium, iodine, phosphorus and vitamins B2 and B12 as well as calcium ​[found in milk naturally] and vitamin D ​[which is added to milk]. We also know that the calcium in the plant-based beverages is not as well absorbed.”

Asked why protein was so important given that most Americans already get enough, he said:

“Current protein recommendations are based on minimum needs, but newer data indicates we need higher intakes particularly as we get older and strategy losing lean body mass, so the optimal intake is higher than what is currently recommended. The other thing I’d says is that protein quality in plant-based beverages is not the same complete protein that you get in dairy milk.”

fairlife ranges

Children and dairy milk

As for children, he said, some childhood nutrition experts such as the Canadian Pediatric Society have also started to alert parents​ who may not be aware that not all plant-based milk options match the nutrition of dairy milk.

“Health professionals continue to recommend that kids get enough milk in their diets and the American Academy of Pediatrics​ is pushing milk with meals and water inbetween.”

Given that epidemiological data – such as that coming out of the Adventist Health Studies​ – suggests that people on a vegan diet (no meat or dairy) have the best health outcomes of all​,​ are we overplaying the importance of dairy in the diet?

No insisted Dr Miller, who argued that the body of evidence suggests that "many vegans have lower bone mineral density," ​and that all participants in the Adventist Health Studies had healthier lifestyles than the rest of the population (they smoked and drank less, exercised more and ate better) and that for many Americans, particularly children, dairy is a key source of micronutrients.

Dairy fat: ​As our recent ‘Chewing the fat’ webinar revealed,​ the debate over whether saturated fat is ‘back’ is a little more nuanced than some commentators have suggested, with dairy occupying an interesting position in that while it contains saturated fat (which we’re advised to limit), it also contains cardio-protective components, says National Dairy Council chief science officer Greg Miller, PhD.

“The dietary guidelines still recommend low fat dairy because they are thinking of the obesity epidemic and recommend the lowest caloric versions of foods, but from a health perspective​, milk fat is not the big villain it was once painted to be​.

We know that dairy consumption, regardless of fat level, is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease​  and type two diabetes,​ and is good for bone health. And butter is neutral ​in terms of its relationship to cardiovascular disease.”

cow-istock-Lise Gagne

Dairy and sustainability

Thanks to advanced cow care, genetics and nutrition, U.S. dairy farmers produce more milk from fewer cows—requiring a lot less water and less land—than they did 60 years ago. In fact, more milk is produced today with only 9 million cows than with 26 million cows in 1944. 

“According to Cornell University, the dairy industry reduced its carbon footprint by 63% between 1944 and 2007​ ​ but the US dairy herd size is still around 9 million cows."

Greg Miller, PhD, chief science officer, National Dairy Council

What should kids drink?

Dairy milk? Bananamilk? Almondmilk? Water?  Join the debate at our FOOD FOR KIDS​​​ conference in Chicago in November where we'll explore what kids are drinking, what they perhaps should be drinking, and where we go from here...

Get full details HERE​​​.

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