Americans drink 37 percent less milk today on average than they did in 1970, according to the Agriculture Department. Forty years ago, per capita consumption was nearly 1.5 cups a day; now it's nearer 0.8. While the decline has affected every type of cow's milk — whole, low-fat and skim — it has been most unkind to the full-fat variety. Per capita consumption of whole milk has tumbled by 78 percent since 1970, from more than 1.1 cups per day to less than 0.24.
What's causing the drop? Replacement, mostly. Americans are still drinking the same amount of beverages that they did back in the 1970s, but they're now spreading that fluid intake across a much larger pool of beverage options.
“We essentially went from milk, carbonated soft drinks (CSDs), coffee, and juice in the 1970s to a myriad of alternatives available today,” a report published last year by CoBank noted. The “we” in that construction might as well be replaced by “youth,” because it's America's young who are letting all that milk sour. The most pronounced declines from the late 1970s to the mid-2000s are in the 2-11 and 12-19 age groups.
Parents, it seems, have pulled milk from their children's diets. Schools, too.
Part of that stems from a questioning of the once-heralded health benefits of milk. “Fat content, flavorings, and added sugar have all been viewed with disdain as the country struggles with its child obesity epidemic,” the CoBank report noted. Americans no longer need milk for vitamin D and calcium because they can obtain those nutrients from pills, nutritional bars and health juices. It's not even clear whether milk is all that useful for bone development, or whether we're that well-equipped to digest it.
And milk is getting expensive. The price of milk rose by nearly 10 percent last year alone.
Milk's fall from grace is a problem for dairy farmers. Just ask Big Dairy: The milk lobby has been scrambling to reconstitute America's appreciation for the white stuff for decades. In recent years, it has tried everything from aggressive marketing of chocolate milk to a reluctant adoption of nondairy milk alternatives. But the fast-growing market for soy, almond and other nondairy milk replacements has done little to mitigate the industry's inability to reinvigorate itself.
This year, the Milk Processor Education Program, a marketing board of U.S. milk processors that is monitored by the Agriculture Department, abandoned its beloved 20-year-old “Got Milk?” ad campaign. The reason? Although Americans might have enjoyed it, the array of white mustaches did nothing to boost milk demand. Per capita consumption has fallen or remained level in virtually every year since 1993, the year the campaign was introduced.
The federal government still throws hundreds of thousands of dollars into the milk industry's hands every year. If the lack of innovation, and inspiration, continues, that's a whole lot of money for a whole lot of disappointment.
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