Why aren't Americans consuming enough dairy products? New research from USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS) seeks to understand why. Even though cheese consumption is rising, ERS researchers say per capita dairy consumption has remained steady for several decades, at approximately 1 1/2 "cup-equivalents" per day. That is because Americans are drinking less and less fluid milk.
Most Americans do not consume enough dairy products. The federal government's Dietary Guidelines recommend two cup-equivalents per day for children 2 and 3 years old, 2.5 for those 4 to 8 years, and 3 for Americans older than age 8.; however, per capita dairy consumption has, as noted, long held steady at about 1 1/2 cup-equivalents - despite rising cheese consumption, i.e., a near tripling during the past 40 years. This stasis in per capita dairy consumption results directly from the fact that Americans are drinking progressively less milk. Since 1970 alone, per capita fluid milk consumption has decreased from 0.96 cup-equivalents to about 0.61 cup-equivalents per day.
It's not just adults drinking less milk either. This trend appears to cut across age groups. Children 2 to 18 years consumed less fluid milk since 2000 than did kids and adolescents in the 1970s.
The government report, "Why Are Americans Consuming Less Fluid Milk? A Look at Generation Differences in Intake Frequency," debuted last month and examines trends in fluid milk consumption, including average portion sizes and generational differences that might contribute to the frequency of drinking milk. According to the report, there has been a "slow, continuous shift downward" in milk drinking since the 1940s, with each generation drinking less fluid milk than the one before it.
"These findings may reflect the persistence of childhood habits - each successive generation grows up less accustomed than their parents to drinking fluid milk and carries that habit forward into adult life," note authors Hayden Stewart, Diansheng Dong and Andrea Carlson with ERS.
The report considers other actions as well that could be contributing to the decline. Looking at USDA dietary intake surveys from 1970 into the 2000s, researchers note that Americans are drinking milk fewer times during the day and using fluid milk in different ways. Many, for example, are consuming milk in coffee drinks but drinking it less often as a beverage at meals.
Data from USDA dietary intake surveys conducted between the 1970s and 2000s show that Americans - on occasions when they drink fluid milk - continue to consume about 1 cup (8 fluid ounces). Given the stability of portions, trends showing decreases in per capita consumption since the 1970s mainly reflect changes in consumption frequency. Since the 1970s, people have become less apt to drink fluid milk at mealtimes, especially with midday and nighttime meals, reducing the total number of consumption occasions.
USDA also finds that between surveys in 1977-1978 and 2007-2008, the share of preadolescent children who did not drink fluid milk on a given day rose from 12 percent to 24 percent, while the share that drank milk three or more times per day dropped from 31 to 18 percent. In the same time frame, the share of teenagers and adults who did not drink fluid milk on a given day rose from 41 percent to 54 percent, while the share that drank milk three or more times per day dropped from 13 to 4 percent.
Underlying these decreases in consumption frequency are differences in the habit to drink milk between newer and older generations. All else constant, i.e., race and income, succeeding generations of Americans born after the 1930s have consumed fluid milk less often than their preceding generations. Americans born in the early 1960s consume fluid milk on 1.1 fewer occasions per day than those born before 1930. Americans born in the early 1980s consume fluid milk on 0.3 fewer occasions per day than those born in the early 1960s.
Differences across the generations in milk intake may help account for the observed decreases in per capita fluid milk consumption in recent decades - despite public and private sector efforts to stem the decline. Furthermore, these differences will probably make it difficult to reverse current consumption trends, the authors say. In fact, as newer generations replace older ones, the population's average level of fluid milk consumption may continue to decline.
Dairy farmers contribute 15 cents per hundredweight to checkoff programs, while fluid milk processors contribute 20 cents per 100 pounds they sell in consumer-type packages. "Yet, so far, the efforts of dairy farmers, fluid milk processors, and the federal government have not increased dairy consumption to recommended levels, while fluid milk consumption continues to fall," these researchers point out.
USDA also reports:
- Increases in consumption of 2 percent, 1 percent and skim milk have partly offset decreases in whole milk consumption. Consumption of lower fat milk products accounted for about 20 percent of total consumption in the 1970s and about 70 percent by the end of the 2000s.
- In the late 1970s, 39 percent of teens and adults drank milk with a morning meal; 24 percent consumed it with a midday meal; and 21 percent had fluid milk with a nighttime meal. In recent years, those percentages had decreased to 28 percent, 8 percent, and 9 percent, respectively.
- On the occasions when Americans do consume milk, they have continued to drink at least as much as they did in the 1970s. They drank about 1 cup (8 fluid ounces) per occasion in 2007-2008, on average, versus 0.8 cups in 1977-1978.
- Every decade brings a wider selection of beverage choices. Soft drinks, isotonic sports drinks, bottled water, and other products increasingly compete with fluid milk for a share of the consumer's appetite. Changes also have occurred over time in the popularity of fast food, among other phenomena. Changes in the food environment can affect children's beverage consumption. Two studies suggest children's fluid milk consumption may decrease with exposure to competing beverages and fast food, respectively.
- Regardless of other reasons, as successive generations of Americans have grown up amid declining rates of fluid milk consumption, they may have developed different life-long habits. The habit to drink milk may form (or not form) in childhood. According to present Dietary Guidelines, individuals "who consume milk at an early age are more likely to do so as adults."
Sustained decreases in per capita fluid milk consumption work against efforts to raise Americans' overall dairy consumption to recommended levels. To date, Americans have merely maintained their total intake of dairy products by consuming more Cheddar and Mozzarella cheese; however, this ERS research team contends that this nation would be closer to satisfying dairy recommendations in the Dietary Guidelines if Americans were still drinking as much milk as they did in the 1970s, in addition to the amounts of other dairy products they now consume.