US: Whole and lactose-free milk sales grow as plant-based alternatives dip

By Teodora Lyubomirova

- Last updated on GMT

Getty/brightstars
Getty/brightstars

Related tags Dairy Milk fluid milk plant-based dairy Dairy alternatives plant-based Usa

While the annual fluid milk consumption continues to decline, some categories have bucked the trend with growing retail sales in 2023, according to newly-released data.

According to data from Circana cited by the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), retail sales of whole milk rose annually, up 8 million gallons, or 0.6% in 2023, while lactose-free milk climbed 6.7%.

Alan Bjerga, executive vice-president, communications & industry relations at NMPF, said 2024 was ‘shaping up to be an exciting year for both whole and lactose-free milk’. “Because overall fluid sales declined, whole milk now makes up 45.4% of total fluid volume sold and is easily the most popular variety,” he said, adding that lactose-free milk in particular has surpassed the sales volume of almond-based alternatives, which declined in 2023 by 9.8% according to the same data set.

“Almond’s annual decline of 9.8% is a big part of an overall consumer move away from plant-based alternatives, which have now seen two straight years of sales volume drops. Buyers are emphatically rejecting years of misleading claims that these beverages are a worthy substitute to dairy,” he claimed.

Sales of plant-based dairy alternatives fell 6.6% to 337.7 million gallons in 2023 according to the data, making this the second year in a row that’s seen sales volumes dip. This was also the lowest consumption level for plant-based alternatives since 2019, according to NMPF.

Bjerga continued: “In what’s been a challenging time for the industry, what can the success of whole and lactose-free milk tell us? It shows that, for all the proliferation of alternatives, consumers like milk that’s most like milk, in taste and composition. They also like milk that’s accessible for everyone who wants its benefits. Quality and diversity are promising building blocks for a prosperous future. That’s plentiful in dairy, and this year, what consumers are choosing also can inform better federal policy."

According to Mintel, almond milk alternatives are the most frequently consumed in the US, with 2 in 5 shoppers purchasing it in 2023. Oat, coconut, and soya milk are all relatively equal, with 15-20% of consumers purchasing these plant-based milk products in 2023.

Mintel reports that 2 in 5 people aged 55 and over consider non-dairy milk to be more nutritious, and only 1 in 5 think dairy is more nutritious, though two thirds of older consumers drink dairy due to being used to it. “Dairy brands have the opportunity to capitalize on extreme Gen X loyalty and reaffirm it by boosting how their products market the health benefits of dairy milk,” the market insights agency stated.

Meanwhile, lactose intolerance has been a factor in shifting purchasing decisions from dairy to plant-based, but taste has been an even bigger reason for choosing plant-based, according to Mintel. “While a third of consumers say that lactose intolerance within their household is the motivating factor for purchasing non-dairy milk, the biggest reason is because it is better tasting than dairy milk. However, interestingly, this is also the most commonly cited reason for dairy consumers – so perhaps it comes down largely to personal taste and preference!

“On a more conscious level, plant-based milk consumers have stated their preference for non-dairy milk as it is perceived to be more nutritious, more natural, higher in protein, better for animals, and better for the environment. We can see that there is a significant ethical factor in plant-based milk consumption, along with dietary preferences.”

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