DAIRY producers have long known that fluid milk consumption is an area of concern for the industry, despite advances in marketing cheese, yogurt and other dairy-sector products.
According to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture analysis, per capita consumption of fluid milk has fallen 40% since 1970.
While milk is still considered a staple of the American diet, USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS) found that Americans of all ages are drinking less milk, on average, than previous generations did. Per capita consumption of fluid milk totaled nearly one cup (8 oz.) per day in 1970 but now tallies only 0.6 cup per day (Figure).
ERS researchers analyzed data from food consumption surveys conducted in each of the past four decades to determine which trends and factors might help explain what one dairy leader called the fluid milk "crisis."
Generally speaking, differences in the eating and drinking habits of younger generations appear to be a key factor.
Americans born in the 1970s, for example, drank less milk in their teens, 20s and 30s than did their counterparts born in the 1960s at those same age points.
The trend of declining consumption continued for those respondents born in the 1980s and 1990s, with each age group appearing to drink less milk in their adult years than those born in the 1970s.
USDA said the survey data revealed that portion size has been fairly consistent over time: Americans generally consume one cup of milk as a serving. What has changed, however, is the frequency of consumption.
"As teenagers in 1977-78, Americans born in the early 1960s drank milk 1.5 times per day," the report notes. "As they grew older, they drank milk less often, consuming it on 0.7 occasions per day as young adults and 0.6 occasions per day in middle age."
On the other hand, Americans born in the early 1980s entered their teenage years consuming milk 1.2 times per day, with frequency falling to just 0.5 times per day by the time they reached adulthood.
"These generational differences in the frequency of milk drinking are contributing to decreases in per capita consumption," the researchers concluded. "Between the 1977-78 and 2007-08 surveys, children's consumption of fluid milk declined from an average of 1.7 cups to 1.2 cups per day, and milk consumption by teenagers and adults fell from 0.8 cups to 0.6 cups per day."
ERS concluded that several factors account for the observed generational variations, including a wider selection of beverage choices at supermarkets, restaurants and other food outlets.
Soft drinks, sports drinks, bottled water, juice boxes and other beverage options all increasingly compete with fluid milk for consumer market share, ERS explained.
Other dairy options
USDA's dietary guidelines still call for consumers to get a modicum of dairy as part of a well-balanced diet.
Current guidelines for teenagers and adults suggest daily consumption of three cups of foods from the dairy group, which includes fluid milk as well as foods made from milk that retain their calcium content, such as cheese, yogurt and some milk-based desserts.
"Consuming dairy products provides health benefits, especially improved bone health," USDA explained on its Choose My Plate website. "Foods in the dairy group provide nutrients that are vital for health and maintenance of your body."
According to USDA data, Americans are certainly consuming more dairy products in aggregate: Total per capita dairy consumption has increased 13.5% since 1975, even as fluid milk and cream consumption has fallen more than 18%. Cheese consumption is a big reason for this trend, with consumption of non-American cheeses up 233% since 1975.
Retailers are taking notice of these trends and increasingly are taking advantage by selling dairy products under private store labels.
A recent study conducted by Market Force Information found that of all categories studied, dairy products were the most frequently purchased private-label groceries.
The survey of more than 6,600 consumers found that 83% of shoppers buy private-label brands either because of a perceived equivalence in quality or to take advantage of price savings.
Seventy-six percent said they purchase private-label dairy products most or some of the time, while 19% said they always buy private-label dairy products. Of the 95% of shoppers who buy private-label dairy, 78% cited price as the key driver, and 48% said value was a factor.
Aside from the dairy case, shoppers said snack foods and breakfast cereals were their next most frequently purchased private-label products.
Stemming the tide
The ERS study found that while fluid milk trends are falling, some programs seem to have a positive effect on consumption.
Specifically, promotional programs sponsored by the dairy checkoff and the National School Lunch Program were noted as having a positive correlation with children's consumption of fluid milk.
However, the trend of ongoing decreases in consumption from generation to generation may be too difficult to overcome.
"Indeed, holding all other factors constant, the gradual replacement in the population of older generations by younger generations will exert downward pressure on Americans' average consumption of fluid milk," the researchers warned.
That downward pressure is a potential harbinger of negative health outcomes in the not-so-distant future.
The trends indicate that Americans will have trouble meeting USDA's daily dairy consumption guidelines absent increased milk consumption, and dairy products generally contain more calories than fluid milk on a per-cup equivalent basis.
Cheddar cheese, for example, contains 14.8% more calories per cup than whole milk, and whole-fat mozzarella has slightly more calories per cup than 2% milk.
"Maintaining a focus on children may be key to mitigating or halting the downward trend in fluid milk consumption because habit formation implies that childhood food choices can affect long-run behavior," the report concludes.
For parents concerned about their kids' long-term health, that likely means bucking their own dietary trends and putting more milk on the family's table instead of other contemporary beverage choices.