March 25, 2014 in Business

Milk losing its place on America’s tables

Mike Hughlett McClatchy-Tribune

Amy Bryant, right, of St. Paul, Minn., gives thanks before enjoying an evening meal March 4 with daughters Sophie, 5, who is “crazy for milk,” and Francesca, 8, who says milk upsets her stomach.
(Full-size photo)

MINNEAPOLIS – Got almond milk?

More and more consumers do. They’ve also got soy milk, coconut milk, flax milk and all sorts of trendy juices and bottled waters. But good old milk – the moo kind – keeps fading from grocery lists.

Milk’s rate of decline in 2011 and 2012 was the highest in more than a decade, though per-capita consumption has been falling for years and dropped 25 percent from 1975 through 2012, according to federal data.

Milk drinking by both kids and adults has particularly declined during prime-time: meals. The tall, cool glass of milk with a sandwich at lunch or a burger at dinner is increasingly an anachronism.

“If I’m with another adult and they have milk during dinner, it seems kind of nostalgic,” said Amy Bryant, a St. Paul, Minn., mother of two daughters, ages 8 and 5. “I was a milk lover and I grew up drinking it. You just kind of had milk with your dinner.”

While producers have offset milk’s decline by selling more cheese, nearly tripling its consumption in the past four decades, the industry hasn’t been able to halt the slide in milk demand.

Recently, it even shelved its venerable “Got milk?” campaign, with the milk-mustached celebrities. New ads will emphasize milk’s protein content.

Katie Anderson, insight director at Minneapolis marketing firm Colle and McVoy, said the old campaign may have “lost its relevance.”

“Milk has just been sleepy,” Anderson said. “We have the juice people, the water people – everybody else is taking off.”

Alarmingly for the industry, even the most devoted milk drinkers – kids – aren’t consuming as much of the white stuff as they once did.

The share of preteens who didn’t drink any milk on a given day rose from 12 percent to 24 percent between 1978 and 2008, according to a 2013 report from the Department of Agriculture. During the same time, the share of preteens who drank milk three times or more a day dropped from 31 percent to 18 percent.

“It’s kind of the younger generation we’ve lost,” said K.J. Burrington of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Dairy Research.

While Bryant said her 5-year-old is “crazy for milk,” her older daughter barely drinks any. She might be lactose-intolerant, a condition Americans have become increasingly aware of, and one that is a brake on milk sales.

At Mary Hanson-Busch’s house in New Prague, Minn., milk is featured less often at mealtimes, too. “Every night when we sit down for supper, I grab a big squeezy bottle of water,” said Hanson-Busch, a married mother of two teenage daughters.

She used to have milk at breakfast, either with cereal, a muffin or toast. But she overhauled her diet last fall. Cereal went largely by the wayside: too much sugar. And from a calorie perspective, Hanson-Busch decided she didn’t need as much milk.

One of her daughters ditched cows’ milk altogether recently, becoming a vegetarian and switching to coconut milk. “We go through about a gallon of milk a week for the family,” Hanson-Busch said. “We used to go through about two gallons.”

To a growing number of consumers, milk isn’t the nutritional touchstone it once was, even though it fulfills key nourishment needs.

“It’s really one of our best sources of vitamin D and calcium,” said Deb Sheats, a nutrition and dietetics professor at St. Catherine University in St. Paul. Vitamin D and calcium are important nutrients that often get shorted in the American diet.

Enter the “plant” milks: soy, almond and so on. They’re not really milk, but they are marketed that way. Through fortification, plant milks have just as much if not more calcium and vitamin D as dairy milk, and sometimes fewer calories, though they are more expensive.

“They are riding the coattails of milk’s nutritional profile,” said Marin Bozic, a professor of dairy marketing economics at the University of Minnesota. “They try to place themselves as a substitute for dairy milk.”

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