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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

Moo! We keep eating dairy products

The USDA recently released an annual data series about production and consumption of dairy products. There is nothing dramatic in the updated 2019 data points, nor would I expect a big swing in per capita consumption trends. 2020 might, though, be a dramatic inflection data point...I just had never looked at the trends going back to 1975. Most folks in food marketing or research would know that Americans have steadily been drinking less milk for almost fifty years. No, we don't "Got Milk" in our fridges or pantries (shelf stable) as much as we used to.

But, what I didn't realize is that we've been shifting, knowingly or unwittingly, some of us maybe even sneaking dairy into our diet in other ways. So much so that that the per capita consumption of dairy products overall has grown by over 20%, pretty steadily since 1975! Fluid milk consumption is down over 40% over the same period.

It's not about us eating more ice cream instead. Ice cream per person consumption is down 25% since 1975. That's kind of surprising too.

But, butter has been contributing a bit to the rise in dairy consumption since the late aughts. I was at Unilever during the decade before this, when margarine had the upper hand over butter. We had a stable of spreads brands, always cheaper than butter, that we marketed as healthier than butter because these spreads had much less saturated fat and no cholesterol. But butter has always been the gold standard for taste. And it's a more natural product. As our views around fats have evolved, and more of us are looking for cleaner ingredient labels, butter's fortunes have risen to the point where we each ate more butter in 2019 than in 1975.

Yogurt has been a major contributor to per capita dairy consumption gains. In 1975 we each ate just 2 pounds of refrigerated yogurt, compared to 15 pounds in 2014, when consumption peaked. Yogurt is still a force in the packaged foods world. It's perceived as good for you. It tastes good (it doesn't hurt that many of the popular yogurts are packed with sugar which dairy milk isn't). Yogurt is fairly convenient - faster and easier than a bowl of cereal, anyway. It's filling, and relatively affordable. You might think that all the talk about plant-based foods is taking business away from yogurt. But plant-based inroads remain small. We recently did research with folks open to trying a plant-based yogurt, and most said they were looking to minimize their dairy consumption. But dairy yogurt has been somewhat flat for the last several years while plant-based yogurt has been taking more shelf space, so if people are switching away from dairy, it's being masked by something else. It's hard to walk away from a thick, rich, smooth, and creamy dairy yogurt.

An even bigger driver is our penchant for cheese. 24 pounds more per year of cheese since our Bicentennial. More Monterey, Jack and other types of cheese we use in Mexican food. And more Italian-type cheese. It's all the pizza. Another food that works on several levels. A tasty, convenient, feed-a lot-for-not-a lot food. A real crowd-pleaser. Imagine a pizza or an enchilada without cheese. Those options don't get ordered very often. We've got to have the gooey stuff.

Big picture, veganism remains a very small behavior. Maybe 2-3% of the U.S. population from what I've read. Strict vegetarianism is not that much bigger here either. There are a growing number of "flexitarians" among us, cutting out meat, here and there, and cutting back on dairy sometimes. That "sometimes" is not as often as you might think, it appears.

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