The Dairy Dilemma: Simultaneously Under-Consumed & Misunderstood

Dairy foods and beverages hold the not-so-coveted title as one of the most under-consumed food groups on the plate. In fact, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), approximately 90% of individuals do not consume the recommended three servings per day. More specifically, consumption appears to be the lowest among Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) subpopulations.  

Rampant food and nutrition misinformation is counter to the goal of helping consumers build healthy dietary patterns. When food groups are not consumed in recommended amounts, nutrient inadequacies are exacerbated. Inadequate dairy intake can jeopardize health and wellness by limiting intake of three out of four under-consumed nutrients of public health concern – vitamin D, calcium, and potassium. The extent to which historically underserved communities are disproportionately affected by increasing rates of diet-related disease and food insecurity is widely chronicled, including in the National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health 

The International Food Information Council (IFIC) has a long history of conducting consumer research on US eating trends and behaviors to support improved diet quality. With the annual IFIC Food & Health Survey entering its 20th year, we have been inspired to augment our research methodology to gain greater insight into underserved populations’ perceptions, attitudes, behaviors, and needs. Specifically, we have committed to 1) tripling the number of respondents in the IFIC Food & Health Survey to better study and understand population subgroups (e.g., ethnic groups, those with lower income, etc.); and 2) oversampling certain demographics in standalone projects so that we can contribute subpopulation insights with greater statistical power.  

A Complicated Web of Dairy Perceptions and Consumption Conundrums 

It is important to understand motivators and barriers to providing equal access, availability, and actionability that enables the US population to regularly consume dairy foods and beverages in ways that meet their cultures, lifestyles, and needs. IFIC’s latest research study, Understanding Fluid Milk & Dairy Food Consumption Patterns to Enhance Diet Quality & Nutrition Equity, oversampled for non-White and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)-eligible respondents, contributing new consumer insights to improve diet quality among all Americans. 

These following findings can inform efforts to stem dairy’s chronic under-consumption:    

  1. Americans intuitively know dairy consumption is important. Approximately three-fourths of those surveyed say that dairy is an essential part of a healthy and balanced diet and that the “positive health benefits of dairy outweigh any health concerns [they] have.” However, these beliefs vary among racial and ethnic groups. For instance, the belief that dairy is integral to a healthy balanced diet is significantly higher in non-Hispanic White respondents compared to Latinos. Similarly, significantly more non-Hispanic White respondents agree that dairy’s positive benefits outweigh concerns when compared to Black individuals. Those not eligible for SNAP benefits are more likely to note dairy’s role in a healthy diet and agree that its benefits outweigh their concerns.  
  2. Consumers report purchasing and consuming dairy for taste, price, healthfulness (bone, teeth, and digestive health; source of protein), and convenience. Nuances are seen among population groups with significantly more non-Hispanic White and Latino individuals reporting taste as a top reason to consume milk compared to Black and Asian or Pacific Islanders. Milk consumption habits are significantly lower in Black individuals versus non-Hispanic Whites. 
  3. Common intake barriers get to the heart of health equity. Significantly more Latino, Black, and Asian or Pacific Islander respondents reported being lactose intolerant and/or having a dairy allergy or sensitivity compared with non-Hispanic White individuals. Yet, only one in five respondents reported drinking lactose-free milk at least once a week. Notably, close to half of respondents said that their culture or religion neither encouraged nor discouraged the consumption of dairy.
  4. Those information sources that consumers say are most credible are not necessarily the most common sources for information. A clear majority of those surveyed identified doctors, health professionals, and registered dietitians/nutritionists as the most trustworthy sources of information on dairy healthfulness, followed by government agencies. Social media was deemed as least trustworthy. Yet, the two most prevalent sources of information were friends and family and social media. 
  5. Consumers are susceptible to dairy fallacies. More than half of consumers agree that there’s “a lot of conflicting information about whether or not they should consume dairy.” Additionally, clear alignment is seen between consumers hearing and believing negative misinformation about dairy (e.g., hormones, antibiotics, mucus production, inflammation, gut health problems, and acne). Not surprisingly, those who reported decreasing their milk consumption in the past 10 years were more likely to have heard about and believed negative side effects from dairy consumption.
  6. Potential “passive avoidance” adds to consumption complexity. Typically, in consumer research, our most salient insights come from what the data tell us. Sometimes, however, there are ‘aha’ moments that result from what respondents do not say, which was the case in this research when more than one in three respondents chose not to articulate why they do not consume milk or other dairy products more – instead selecting “none of the above.” This is despite an extensive list of 15 barriers to select from, suggesting “passive avoidance.” 

Realizing The Benefits Of Optimal Dairy Consumption 

The DGA simply state that “Most individuals would benefit by increasing intake of dairy in fat-free or low-fat forms, whether from milk (including lactose-free milk), yogurt, and cheese.” The following approaches can help close the consumption gap between recommendations and reality:  

  • Efforts to increase dairy knowledge should not only address its underconsumption and essential nutrients provided but also raise awareness about how to overcome lactose intolerance, illuminating the variety of dairy food and beverage options and innovations available on the market. Science-based education campaigns should leverage social media and word-of-mouth, with unique opportunities for BIPOC and low-income Americans in addition to the general population. 
  • Practicalities, including taste and convenience, should be encouraged to cultivate positive eating experiences and to build dairy consumption habits. Many consumers love the taste of dairy foods and beverages. Showcasing dairy’s deliciousness on its own, or as an addition to other food groups that are also under consumed (i.e., cheese paired with fruits and vegetables, or milk varieties coupled with whole grain cereal, for example), can potentially improve overall diet quality. Inclusion of a variety of diary types and forms consistent with individual lifestyles and cultural norms, with an emphasis on simple, convenient meal and snack options, should also be considered.  
  • Accessibility and actionability needs to be ensured by maintaining and expanding dairy food and beverage access, including lactose-free options, as well as by increasing nutrition education in food assistance programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), school meals, and more.  

Overall, increased dairy consumption among all populations can positively contribute to improved diet quality and nutrition equity — availability, accessible, and affordability — goals that support enhanced health for all Americans.