A Cargill survey of 840 adults across 13 countries found as many as half of U.S. dairy consumers also consume plant-based alternatives, according to Dairy Reporter.
The survey also found that 90% of American households typically consume real dairy, while 67% consider it a regular part of their diet. While 48% of participants said a balanced diet doesn't need real dairy, only 4% consume just dairy alternatives.
Consumers who avoid dairy mostly do it because of health reasons. Of the total avoiders, 35% said they were lactose-intolerant, and 28% had dairy allergies. But some consumers surveyed said they are choosing to stay away from growth hormones, saturated fat and antibiotics in traditional dairy — though most who have tried alternatives prefer the taste of real dairy.
The war between dairy and plant-based milks had been heating up long before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration opened a comment period last week to get the public's opinion on using traditional dairy terms for plant-based items — which will ultimately help determine whether alternatives can continue to use that terminology on labels and in advertising.
Emails obtained by the Good Food Institute, which promotes vegan alternatives, revealed as far back as 2011, the FDA did not want to call a soy-based dairy alternative drink "milk" in documentation, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture went ahead with the term anyway. Since then, proposed legislation and lawsuits have been stacking up.
The Cargill survey points to what many analysts have been saying and what statistics reveal — that dairy and dairy alternatives have become standby products in the mainstream consumer’s diet.
According to recent figures from Nielsen and the Plant Based Foods Association, non-dairy milk sales jumped 9% to $1.6 billion in the 52 weeks ending in June, and plant-based milk now represents 15% of the total market. During that same period, sales of cow's milk fell 6%. Other plant-based dairy alternatives saw even higher sales increases, according to the figures, with creamers up 131% over the previous year, yogurt sales growing 55% and plant-based cheeses jumping 43%.
Many in the dairy industry view the continuing popularity of the plant-based segment with alarm, yet the findings in the Cargill survey also show consumers appreciate having additional product options in both areas. There are some advantages for traditional dairy in the current scenario. More studies, reports and consumer surveys have been emerging claiming a consumer preference for dairy-based products over plant-based ones — or that consuming dairy alternatives can be a nutritional gamble. In addition, 55% of the survey participants noted that the taste of real dairy was their No. 1 priority when purchasing products.
Some dairy firms have been investing in plant-based companies, such as Dean Foods' purchase last year of a minority stake in Good Karma Foods, a manufacturer of non-dairy milk and yogurt products. Continuing diversification and innovation — along with emphasizing nutritional benefits and clean labels — could be just what the dairy industry needs to keep sales growth competitive with plant-based products. Meanwhile, both sectors seem to be attracting a crossover audience likely to continue buying dairy and plant-based alternatives as the occasion — and their varying taste — demands.