The authors are economists with USDA’s Economic Research Service.
Today’s milk case offers a variety of products differentiated by flavor, fat content, package size, and other characteristics that call out to consumers, but that’s not all. Lactose-free products are available for the lactose intolerant, as well as acidophilus milk, a probiotic drink. Some products even have added DHA omega-3 fatty acids. Others are organic. Packaging may also call attention to cows being pasture-raised or grass-fed.
With this extensive differentiation, milk processors are hoping to offer products that align with consumers’ diverse preferences, and yet, despite their efforts, milk processors have been unable to reverse a 70-year decline in U.S. per capita fluid milk consumption. Indeed, data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reveal that the average amount of fluid cow’s milk consumed by individuals in the U.S. fell at a faster rate during the 2010s than it did during any of the previous six decades.
To better understand trends in U.S. fluid cow’s milk consumption, we examined dietary intake surveys cooperatively planned and conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics (part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and the USDA between 2003 and 2018. Participants in these surveys reported their food and beverage intake during a 24-hour period, including what they ate, how much was consumed, and whether foods were eaten as a stand-alone item or in combination with other foods. Information also is available on the characteristics of these survey participants, including their age.
Milk drinking held, then dropped
Whether milk is consumed as plain milk, flavored milk, eggnog, malted milk, kefir, hot chocolate, or another milk-based beverage, drinking it remains the primary way that individuals of all ages consume fluid cow’s milk. In 2003 to 2004, U.S. consumers drank about 0.57 cup-equivalents of fluid cow’s milk each day, on average. Per capita consumption then fluctuated over the 2000s, between 0.57 and 0.53 cup-equivalents per day.
However, in the second half of the study period, per capita consumption declined, falling to 0.33 cup-equivalents per day in 2017 to 2018 (a 42% drop). Significant reductions were observed among children (ages 12 and under), teenagers (ages 13 through 19), and adults (ages 20 and older).
Milk with cereal
Another way people use fluid cow’s milk is by pouring it on to hot and cold cereal. In 2003 to 2004, individuals consumed about 0.23 cup-equivalents of milk with cereal each day, on average. By 2017 to 2018, per capita consumption of milk with cereal had declined to 0.17 cup-equivalents per day (a 26% drop-off). The most significant reductions in milk consumption with cereal were observed among children.
Milk in other beverages
Adding it to other beverages such as tea and coffee is a third way that people use fluid cow’s milk. In 2003 to 2004, individuals consumed about 0.07 cup-equivalents of milk this way each day, on average, much like they did in 2003 to 2004. No significant changes were detected in the amount of milk that U.S. consumers pour into other nondairy beverages over the study period.
A look beyond fluid
Despite decreases in U.S. per capita fluid milk intake, individuals are still consuming more cow’s milk on a milkfat basis, according to a separate USDA data series. USDA disappearance estimates of domestic cow’s milk use capture the amount of milk consumed in all dairy products including fluid milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, and other sources based on the amount of milkfat in those products.
Specifically, USDA defines total domestic human use of cow’s milk as the sum of beginning stocks, farm level milk production, and imports minus the sum of ending stocks, exports, shipments to U.S. territories, and milk fed to calves. Total domestic human use is then divided by the size of the U.S. population (resident population plus armed forces overseas) to arrive at a per capita estimate. Between 2000 and 2020, U.S. dairy consumption rose on a milkfat basis from 590 to 655 pounds per person per year, driven in part by growth in cheese and yogurt intake.
However, when it comes to assessing individuals’ diet quality, nutritionists measure dairy product intake in cup-equivalents, not on a milkfat basis. According to the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025, individuals should consume 2 to 3 cup-equivalents of dairy products per day. There are specific quantity recommendations based on age, gender, and level of physical activity.
Consuming 1 cup of cow’s milk, 1 cup of fortified soy beverage, 1 cup of yogurt, 1.5 ounces of natural cheese, or 2 ounces of processed cheese contributes 1 cup-equivalent toward meeting daily dairy recommendations. Thus, cup-equivalents for dairy products are not based on the milkfat in the products alone. Consuming whole and skim milk count equally toward an individual’s dairy intake, for example, as does consuming cheese, yogurt, or other dairy products.
Many fall short
About 90% of the U.S. population does not consume enough dairy products to meet federal dietary recommendations, and declining per capita consumption of fluid cow’s milk has played a part in preventing the situation from improving. To better measure consumption trends, USDA adjusts its disappearance estimates for loss and converts those resulting loss-adjusted quantities into the same unit of measurement as used in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
These data, known as USDA food availability data, show that from the mid-1980s through the 2000s, U.S. total dairy intake, including the consumption of fluid milk and other dairy products, averaged between 1.52 and 1.57 cup-equivalents per person per day. During this time span, growing cheese consumption was generally sufficient to offset trends in fluid milk use. However, given the rate at which per capita fluid milk consumption fell in the 2010s, U.S. dairy intake was below 1.5 cup-equivalents per person per day in both 2018 and 2019.
Many, many options
Competition with other beverages may explain why U.S. per capita fluid milk consumption fell at a faster rate in the 2010s than during the 2000s. Products known to compete with fluid cow’s milk include plant-based beverages, such as those labeled “almond milk” and “soy milk.”
While sales of these products are too small to explain much of overall sales trends for cow’s milk, it is possible that growth in plant-based beverages and other beverage categories may collectively explain a significant portion of why milk consumption fell at a quicker rate in the 2010s. Looking to the future, it remains to be seen whether the efforts of milk processors to launch new products will be sufficient to turn the tide on trends in fluid milk intake.