IFIC Survey: Understanding the Purchasing Behaviors and Preferences of Dairy Consumers

IFIC Survey: Understanding the Purchasing Behaviors and Preferences of Dairy Consumers

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  • Americans who consume dairy report eating or drinking dairy-based products more frequently than plant-based, non-dairy alternatives.
  • When it comes to choosing between a dairy version of a product versus a non-dairy version, the strongest preference appears when it comes to cheese, with nearly three in four always opting for the dairy version over a non-dairy alternative.
  • The top reason for consuming yogurt is taste, followed by nutritional value and health benefits/being a healthier option.
  • When considering dairy-based yogurts, “natural” and “low fat” claims are the most important to people; when it comes to plant-based yogurt, “natural” and “high protein content” are the most valuable claims.
  • Almost half say they are familiar with and know a lot about probiotics, but fewer say the same about “live and active cultures.”

The options in the dairy section of the grocery store are becoming increasingly diversified with non-dairy, plant-based alternatives—whether they be yogurt, milk, ice cream or cheese. But for Americans who consume dairy, how often and why do they choose dairy products versus plant-based alternatives? And how does their selection of dairy-based versus plant-based vary depending on the type of product?

In addition to seeking the answers to these questions, this survey took a deeper dive into behaviors and perceptions around one particular dairy product: yogurt. This survey examined motivations for consuming yogurt, along with preferences for and awareness of the nutrition and health benefits commonly identified on yogurt labels, including “live and active cultures.”

Here are some key findings:

Despite the growing number of non-dairy alternatives available, dairy consumers still opt for dairy most frequently. Nearly three in four (72%) who consume dairy said they do so several times a week, compared with about one in four (28%) who said the same about consuming non-dairy alternatives. Adults over age 55 had the strongest preference for dairy, with the majority (80%) saying that they consume dairy foods or beverages multiple times a week (80%, vs. 67% of those ages 18–34 and 73% of those ages 35–54). Half (50%) of adults age 55+ said they never consume non-dairy alternatives, compared with only 8% of 18–34 year-olds who said the same.

People have the strongest preference for dairy-based versions of cheese, butter and ice cream. Almost three in four (74%) said they always choose the dairy version of cheese, while only 20% sometimes choose the non-dairy version. When looking at other products, the majority of people said they always choose the dairy version of butter (68%), ice cream (66%), milk (64%), yogurt (62%) and yogurt-based smoothies or drinks (45%). In contrast, about one in four said they sometimes choose the non-dairy version of butter (23%), ice cream (26%), milk (26%), yogurt (22%) and yogurt-based smoothies or drinks (27%). While nearly two in three always choose the dairy version of milk, women were more likely than men to sometimes choose both dairy and plant-based versions of milk (29%, vs. 23% of men).

Taste is the greatest motivator for consuming yogurt. One in five (20%) ranked taste as their top reason for consuming yogurt, and nearly half (48%) included taste among their top three reasons for doing so. Following taste, health-focused reasons rose to the top; over one in three ranked health benefits/healthier option (38%) and nutritional value (37%) in their top three reasons for consuming yogurt. Of those who consume yogurt for health benefits, the most sought-after benefits were digestive and gut health (25% ranked this #1) and general health and wellness (24%). Of those who consume yogurt for nutritional value, the most important reason for doing so was protein content (23% ranked this #1), followed by calcium content (14%).

Different claims hold sway when considering dairy-based versus plant-based yogurt, but the “natural” claim is influential for both. Of those considering dairy-based yogurts, over one in ten (12%) said that “natural” is the most important claim to them, and nearly a quarter (23%) ranked this among their top two priorities. “Low fat” was also an important claim when considering dairy-based yogurts, with 12% saying this was the most important and one in five (20%) ranking it among their top two priorities. Similarly, “whole milk” was another top priority for over one in ten (12%). Age seems to play a role in preference between these two claims, with people age 55+ more likely to choose “low fat” as a priority (25%, vs. 18% of those ages 18–34), while 18­–34 year-olds were more likely to prioritize “whole milk” (21%, vs. 14% age 55+).

Of those considering plant-based yogurts, over one in ten (12%) said that they most commonly sought out the “natural” claim, followed by “high protein content” (9%).

People are more familiar with and knowledgeable about probiotics as compared with the term “live and active cultures.” The terms “probiotics” and “live and active cultures” are sometimes used to describe attributes of yogurt. Probiotics are live microorganisms that provide a health benefit when administered in adequate amounts. Probiotics mainly consist of different types of bacteria, but certain types of yeasts also fit the bill. The phrase “live and active cultures” refers to the living bacteria Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, which convert pasteurized milk to yogurt during fermentation. Nearly half (49%) said they are very familiar with and know a lot about probiotics; only about one in three (35%) said the same about live and active cultures. Many (45%) said they have heard of live and active cultures but don’t know much about them, while fewer (14%) said they haven’t heard of them but would like to learn more. Of those who have at least heard of live and active cultures, two in three (67%) believe that a product containing these is better for them.


Survey results were derived from 1,014 online interviews conducted from April 1 to April 6, 2021, among adults ages 18–80 who consume dairy at least a few times a year. They were weighted to ensure proportional representation of the population, with a margin of error of ±3.1 points at the 95% confidence level.