Why Are Americans Drinking Less Cow's Milk? Its Appeal Has Curdled

May 16, 2017
Originally published on May 16, 2017 8:43 pm

When's the last time you had a glass of cow's milk?

Americans are drinking a lot less milk than they used to. According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture, the average person drinks 18 gallons a year. Back in the 1970s it was more like 30 gallons a year. We once hoisted a glass with dinner, soaked our breakfast cereal or dipped into the occasional milkshake. This habitual milk drinking was no accident.

It started in the 1800s, when Americans moved from farms to cities. "First, you had to have the rise of milk trains that would bring milk from the countryside. That milk was refrigerated with ice," says Melanie DuPuis, a professor at Pace University and author of Nature's Perfect Food: How Milk Became America's Drink.

Before that, she says, milk was not a reliable source of nutrition for city dwellers. Nor was it all that safe. In the 1850s there was a major scandal in New York after thousands of babies died from drinking swill milk — the stuff that came from sickly cows, animals fed from the waste of city grain-alcohol distilleries.

This led to reformers calling for safe milk. At the same time, rural and upstate dairy farmers wanted customers. A political bargain was born. "We are going to make this deal, where we're going to feed those children and enable them to get enough nutrition through this thing that the nutritionists were calling a protective food," says DuPuis. "That will enable your farmers and your farm regions to have a vibrant economy."

Milk get its healthy halo

DuPuis says early-20th century nutritionists mounted studies to better understand the health benefits of milk. For instance, they'd feed dairy products or vegetable oil to rats or dogs, and then they'd measure the results.

"These rats that had dairy products would be sleek and healthy-looking and larger, and the other animals would look scrawny and unhealthy," adds DuPuis. Groups that represented milk interests embraced the research and infused their advertisements with glowing claims about milk's health benefits.

By the mid-20th century, Americans were told to drink two to three glasses of milk a day. And for generations, we did. Dairy companies like Borden boomed. Dairy industry marketing? That was the stuff of legend.

But by the time the famous '90s-era "Got Milk" advertising campaign hit the airwaves and pages of magazines, liquid milk sales were already on the decline.

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and author of Food Politics, points to the 1970s as a time when new research raised questions about milk's effectiveness in preventing osteoporosis.

"Milk is the perfect food – for calves," Nestle says. "There is no question about that. But for humans, it may not be. And it may not be necessary, and there is plenty of evidence that it isn't necessary."

The key word there is necessary. Nestle says if you want to drink cow's milk, go ahead — it's still a healthy and nutritious option. The problem for the dairy industry is that it's no longer the only beverage option with a health halo. Juice makers offer calcium and Vitamin D-fortified drinks. Dairy-free diets are widespread. The lactose intolerant no longer believe they need milk to have a complete diet.

Meanwhile, the political debate over how dairy cows were raised also became a factor. The genetically modified growth hormone that was fed to cows to increase dairy production became a major consumer turnoff, says Nestle. "That's why it's not being used that much anymore."

Nestle says the animal rights movement that led many people to become vegetarians or vegans also contributed to the long-term decline in cow's milk consumption.

More choices for kids — and moms

But the biggest hit to milk drinking in the U.S. may have come from teens and the youngest dairy consumers, kids ages 2 to 8.

That's what keeps Julia Kadison up at night. Kadison is the chief executive officer at MilkPep – The Milk Processor Education Program. "What's going on with that decline in the young kids really has a lot to do with their gatekeeper moms, "she explains. Kadison says her group believes moms are still the key decision makers when it comes to what kids are drinking. With moms choosing alternative milks – soy, almond, coconut and the like — kids are embracing those options as well.

"Now there's so much choice in the marketplace," Kadison says. "You have all kinds of different waters and sports beverages and energy drinks, so there's just a lot of choice out there. It's a culture of choice."

Kadison points to the fact that sales for dairy in other forms are still doing well – a fact she attributes to simple innovations like changes in packaging.

"When you go to the yogurt aisle, you will see, probably, depending on the store, half or 40 percent of that is dedicated to kid's products," Kadison explains. "There are all kinds of flavors, there are all kinds of packages, and I am sorry to say but in the milk category that has not been the case. It's like carton or jug, basically. "

What's more, plant-based milks have been steadily gaining ground. According to Nielsen's, almond milk, for instance, has seen sales grow 250 percent over the past five years.

Milk drinking has always been in part about habit and marketing, and milk alternatives capitalize on both.

Even using the word "milk" has become a source of controversy. "What would you call it? Almond slurry?" asks Nestle. "They are deliberately marketing them as a substitute for cow's milk, and it's very successful: More and more people are using those products." As a result, lawmakers from dairy states earlier this year called on the Food and Drug Administration to better enforce rules on what is labeled "milk."

Despite the decades-long decline, the dairy industry thinks it can boost milk consumption. The industry still managed to ring up more than $14 billion in North American sales in 2013. Alternative milks sell a fraction of that. There are also some positive trends for the industry — foodies embracing organic whole milk again; athletes taking to chocolate milk as a recovery drink.

But Marion Nestle still has her doubts. "The dairy industry has a lot of public relations that it is going to need to do to convince the public that it is producing a product that is healthy, good for animals, good for people and good for the planet."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When's the last time you had a glass of milk - not almond milk, not soy milk, not some protein powder, something something - whole cow's milk?

ZACCAI FREE: Twenty-eight years ago, something like that. Cow's milk is not fit for human consumption.

ABBY MARCO: I don't drink milk normally. I put it in, like, tea and stuff, but I have never, not since I was a little, have had a glass of milk.

VIRDEAN MOORE: I haven't actually had a glass of milk. I'll have milk in my cereal.

ADELE RISUTTO: Probably like a month ago. I don't know. I guess I just don't normally buy milk.

CORNISH: That was Zaccai Free, Abby Marco, Virdean Moore and Adele Risutto of Washington, D.C., confirming what the Agriculture Department already knows - Americans are drinking a lot less milk than they used to. The average person drinks 18 gallons a year, which sounds like a lot, except back in the '70s, it was more like 30 gallons a year. We once hoisted a glass with dinner, soaked our breakfast cereal and dipped into the occasional milkshake, and this habitual milk drinking was no accident. It started in the 1800s when Americans moved from farms to cities, according to Professor Melanie DuPuis of Pace University. She's the author of "Nature's Perfect Food: How Milk Became America's Drink."

E MELANIE DUPUIS: First, you had to have the rise of milk trains that would bring milk from the countryside. That milk was refrigerated with ice. They would put it in those milk cans that you now see often mailboxes still sort of stuck in these milk cans. And they would put them on ice and bring them down to the city.

CORNISH: Before that, milk was not a reliable source of nutrition for city dwellers, nor was it all that safe. In the 1850s, there was a major scandal in New York after thousands of babies died from drinking swill milk, the stuff that came from sickly cows, animals who'd fed from the waste of city grain alcohol distilleries. Two things followed - reformers began to call for safe milk and rural and upstate dairy farmers wanted customers. Professor Dupuis says a lasting political bargain was born.

DUPUIS: We are going to make this deal where we're going to feed those children and enable them to get enough nutrition through this thing that the nutritionists were calling a protective food. And that will enable your farmers and your farm regions to innate (ph) have a vibrant economy.

CORNISH: This is around the time milk got its healthy halo.

DUPUIS: The people who'd started to talk about that were the early 20th-century nutritionists, and these nutritionists would create these studies where they would feed dairy products to rats or to dogs. And they would show that these rats who had the dairy products would be sleek and healthy-looking and larger. And then they would feed vegetable oil to the other animals, and those animals would look scrawny and unhealthy. And these are the sorts of things that then the associations that represented milk interests would then take these and turn these into these advertisements for why milk was the healthiest thing.

CORNISH: By the mid-20th century, Americans were told to drink two to three glasses of milk a day...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You kids can score, too, with Borden's milk.

CORNISH: ...And for generations, we did.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) The all-American drink, the best-tasting milk in town. Make sure your mom keeps plenty on hand for you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Giddy up, giddy up, giddy up, buy Borden's today.

CORNISH: Dairy companies like Borden's boomed. Dairy industry marketing - the stuff of legend.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Got milk?

CORNISH: But by the time this famous dairy campaign hit the airwaves, whole milk sales were already on the decline, a generation falling out of the habit, in part because that healthy halo was tarnished.

MARION NESTLE: One of the big issues with dairy foods is that for so many years it was considered the perfect food.

CORNISH: This is Marion Nestle, nutritionist and author of "Food Politics." She points to the 1970s when research surfaced that raised questions about how effective milk is in fending off the bone disease osteoporosis. And as a community, nutritionists kind of fell out of love.

NESTLE: Milk is the perfect food for calves. There's no question about that. But for humans, it may not be, and it may not be necessary. And I think there's plenty of evidence that it isn't necessary.

CORNISH: The keyword there is necessary. Nestle says if you want to drink cow's milk, go ahead. It's still a healthy and nutritious option. The problem for the dairy industry - it's no longer the only healthy option. Juice makers offer calcium and vitamin D fortified drinks. Dairy-free diets are widespread. The lactose intolerant, no longer captive. Never mind the political debate over how dairy cows are raised.

NESTLE: I think the genetically modified growth hormone that was fed to cows to increase dairy production was something that turned off a lot of consumers, which is why it's not being used that much anymore. People are worried about the way that animals are raised. There's a big animal rights movement in this country that has led to many people becoming vegetarians or vegans. And the dairy industry gets hit by the results of that.

CORNISH: But the biggest hit to milk drinking in the U.S. - kids, teens and even the littlest dairy consumers, ages 2 to 8. That's what keeps Julia Kadison up at night.

JULIA KADISON: What's going on with that decline in the young kids really has a lot to do with their gatekeeper moms.

CORNISH: Kadison is from MilkPEP, the advocacy group for dairy processors around the country. And yes, they call parents gatekeepers. They say their surveys find moms are still the key decision-makers when it comes to what kids are drinking, and competition for fridge space is fierce.

KADISON: When I was growing up, we kind of had milk or water or orange juice or maybe we'd get a cola now and then, you know, if we were good. Now there's so much choice in the marketplace. You have all kinds of different waters. You have sports beverages and energy drinks. So there's just a lot of choice out there. It's a culture of choice.

CORNISH: She says other dairy products have met that challenge.

KADISON: There's been a ton of innovation within yogurt and within cheese. So if you go to the yogurt aisle, you will see, probably depending on the store, half or 40 percent of that is dedicated to kid's products. There's all kinds of flavors. There's all kinds of packages. And I - I'm sorry to say, but in the milk category, that has not been the case. It's like carton or jug basically.

CORNISH: Carton or jog - yeah, sounds basic. Milk drinking has always been in part about habit and marketing. Milk alternatives capitalize on both. Ever notice how plant-based milks are displayed in the refrigerator case of the grocery store even though they don't need to be cold, or the fact that the word milk is always somewhere on the packaging?

NESTLE: So what would you call it, almond slurry?

CORNISH: Again, Marion Nestle.

NESTLE: They are deliberately marketing them as a substitute for cow's milk, and it's very successful. More and more people are using those products. Whether they're using them in the same way that they would use dairy products, I don't know. But lots of producers are making nondairy foods that mimic dairy foods made with all kinds of things - tofu, almonds or whatever - and a lot of people like them a lot.

CORNISH: After hearing so many reasons why Americans don't drink as much milk as they used to, I asked Nestle whether this downward trend is reversible. She has her doubts.

NESTLE: The dairy industry has a lot of public relations that it's going to need to do to convince the public that it is producing a product that is healthy, good for animals, good for people and good for the planet.

CORNISH: But the dairy industry thinks it can boost milk consumption. After all, they still managed to ring up $14 billion in North American sales. Alternative milk sell a fraction of that. They look to foodies embracing organic whole milk again, athletes who have taken to chocolate milk as a recovery drink. Still, there are clear signs they are taking the decline in milk drinking seriously. This year, lawmakers from dairy states called on the FDA to better enforce rules on what is labeled milk.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Real milk has naturally occurring calcium. Almond milk doesn't. And it also only has 2 percent almonds...

CORNISH: And, of course, there's new marketing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: What's the other 98 percent? Get real. Get naturally nutritious real milk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.