While foods from apple pie to hot dogs claim to be quintessentially American, few of them have the broad appeal of dairy products, which Americans are consuming at historic rates.
But with the proliferation of nondairy, plant-based alternatives on store shelves and in refrigerator cases, how does consumption and popularity compare among Americans who already consume dairy? A new survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC), “Understanding Dairy Consumers’ Purchasing Behaviors and Habits,” has provided some answers.
The survey of 1,014 American adults who consume dairy at least a few times a year compared how often and why they choose dairy products and their plant-based alternatives, with a special focus on preferences and awareness around yogurt, product labels and concepts like probiotics.
Dairy and nondairy: living together in harmony?
Despite the ever-growing options available for dairy alternatives, dairy itself remains overwhelmingly popular among dairy consumers. According to the findings, nearly three-quarters (72%) of adults who consume dairy foods or beverages do so several times a week, compared to about one-quarter (28%) who say the same of nondairy alternatives like nut-, oat- or soy-based milk, ice cream, yogurt or cheese.
Older adults have the strongest preference for dairy compared to other age groups, with four in five (80%) of those age 55+ saying they consume dairy foods or beverages multiple times per week, compared to two-thirds (67%) of 18- to 34-year-olds and 73% of those ages 35 to 54. Conversely, only 10% of adults age 55+ consume plant-based alternatives multiple times a week, compared to about one-third of younger people (34% of those ages 18 to 34 and 31% of those 35 to 54). Half of adults age 55+ say they never consume nondairy alternatives, standing in stark contrast to just under 8% of 18-34-year-olds who say the same.
When the results are broken down by specific foods, Americans prefer cheese made from dairy over plant-based versions. About three-quarters (74%) said they always choose the dairy version of cheese, while 20% sometimes choose nondairy.
Comparing other products, 68% always choose the dairy version of butter, while 23% sometimes choose nondairy; 66% always choose the dairy version of ice cream, while 26% sometimes choose nondairy; 64% always choose the dairy version of milk, while 26% sometimes choose nondairy; 62% always choose the dairy version of yogurt, while 22% sometimes choose nondairy; and 45% always choose the dairy version of yogurt-based smoothies or drinks, while 27% sometimes choose nondairy. Women are significantly more likely than men to sometimes choose both dairy and plant-based versions of milk (29% of women vs. 23% of men), though overall product preferences are mostly similar by gender.
Cultures of consumption: digging into yogurt
Yogurt containers often portray several nutrition and health benefits, including live and active cultures like Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus. The IFIC survey drilled down on Americans’ perceptions and awareness of those concepts, along with why people consume yogurt and what they look for on the label.
When respondents were asked why they consume yogurt, taste was the top reason for 20% and was among the top three reasons for 48%, followed by 13% of those who said nutritional value was their top reason (37% included it in their top three) and 12% of those who cited health benefits/healthier option as their top reason (38% included it in their top three).
Among those who cited health benefits as a purchase driver, one in four (25%) said digestive and gut health was their most desired benefit and 24% chose general health and wellness, ranking above options like weight loss/weight management and bone health/osteoporosis prevention. Among those who cited nutritional value as a purchase driver, nearly one in four (23%) said protein content was the most important aspect, while 14% cited calcium content, ranking above other nutrients.
When consumers consider dairy-based yogurts, 12% said “natural” is the claim that is most important to them (with 24% ranking it among the top two priorities). IFIC surveys in recent years, including the recently-released 2021 Food and Health Survey, have consistently shown the power of the term “natural” in influencing consumer perceptions and choices of foods and beverages, a trend that continues with yogurt. Another 12% cited “low fat” (with 20% ranking it among the top two priorities)—which interestingly only slightly edged out “whole milk,” chosen as the top priority for 12% and among the top two priorities of 18% of respondents.
An age gap helps explain that dichotomy: 25% of those age 55+ vs. 18% of those ages 18 to 34 chose “low fat” as a priority, while 14% age 55+ and 21% of those 18 to 34 cited “whole milk.”
As for consumers looking for plant-based yogurts, “natural” is also the most important claim for 12%, while “high protein content” places second as the top claim for 9%. The link between plant-based diets and a strong desire for affirmation of protein content has also been found in previous IFIC surveys.
About half (49%) of consumers said they are very familiar with and know a lot about probiotics, compared to 35% who said the same of live and active cultures. Nearly half (45%) said they have heard of live and active cultures but didn’t know much about them, while another 14% said they haven’t heard of live and active cultures but would like to learn more. Two-thirds (67%) of those who have at least heard of live and active cultures believe that a product containing them is better for them.