Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Milk Is the New Cream

This January, as the last two, I am participating in Vegan January. It’s a simple challenge of not eating animal-based food for one month. One part of the appeal of Vegan January is that by avoiding food made from animal products, you automatically skip most junk food.

Yes, I used “appeal” and “skip most junk food” in the same sentence. The American consumer, it seems, is sick of junk food and avoiding it less out of hardened self-discipline than as a matter of honest preference and intuition. I’ve been tracking this trend since the late 1990s, and the changes are hard to miss. People are looking for better-quality junk food, or simply eating less of it. Total U.S. beer consumption has been falling for 25 years, but over the last 10 years, sales from independent brewers are holding steady, picking up a bigger share of the market. Less beer, higher quality. Beef, which was a staple food for many people in the 1990s, is now a specialty food, though stiff price increases and mad cow disease had something to do with that change. For those still eating beef, organic beef has become more common. Milk chocolate is down, while dark chocolate has become nearly as popular. Dark chocolate, obviously, has a better nutritional profile than milk chocolate while costing about the same. Various forms of improved fast food have been popular for five years at a time, but usually this is only a transition period before consumers move on to healthier options.

This pattern can be seen again now with organic milk. Organic milk is in the news this week because market prices have fallen abruptly. As Grace Donnelly highlights this price decline in the Fortune article “Dairy Farmers Experiencing An Organic Milk Surplus As Sales of Almond, Soy Milk Rise”, prices “fell from nearly $40 at the start of 2016 to about $27 late last year,” largely the result of a five-year increase in the number of organic dairy cows.

Organic milk sales started to rise in 2011 and went up for five years before peaking in 2016 and declining through 2017. The dairy sector has barely begun to adjust to the decline.

The way I think of it, Vegan January is the 2018 equivalent of what organic milk represented in 2010. People looking for healthier options chose organic milk as an upgrade, and the obvious next upgrade is to reduce milk consumption or eliminate it altogether, as Vegan January participants are doing this month.

Organic milk was only a brief bright spot in a dairy sector that has seen a 20-year decline. The decline in milk was hard for me to pick up at first, but this far along, it looks a lot like the decline in beer, and it is easy to see that it is part of the same trend. It is not just milk, but all dairy products that are declining. Looking back, the Greek yogurt trend was little more than a blip, no bigger than that of organic milk a year or two later.

In the supermarket, it might look like consumers are switching from milk to coconut milk and almond milk. The real story is simpler: consumption is declining. Coconut milk has been around for ages, but the dairy sector no longer has the market muscle to keep coconut milk out of the diary case. Another way of saying the same thing is that milk sales are no longer large enough to pay for an entire display case in the supermarket. Coconut milk sales are still very small and don’t come close to accounting for the decline in dairy milk.

Those who are over 50 years old may remember the place that cream once held in the supermarket. It was a well-known specialty item, something everyone knew about, but probably not something you would buy every week. This is what milk is turning into. Milk is the new cream. It is almost as expensive in real terms as cream was half a century ago and its nutritional reputation just about matches what people thought of cream around 1970. If trends continue, milk could eventually be occupying the same shelf space that cream had in the supermarkets of the 1970s. Everyone knows what milk is, but most shoppers will buy it only when they need it for a recipe, which is not very often.

Then, of course, an increasing number of shoppers aren’t buying milk at all. The popularity of Vegan January can’t be helping — after you experience a month without buying milk, it’s easy to see that you could do the same thing in any given month. Milk is one of the most expensive junk foods and at the same time, its carbon profile is horrific, so it’s often the first junk food people give up when money gets tight.

My own story of giving up milk was a reaction to the run-up in prices a decade back. Prices never went back down, so for me milk went from being a guilty pleasure to a luxury I couldn’t afford. I stopped paying attention to the dairy case at that point, but when I glance in that direction I can see it has only continued to shrink. In some stores, the gallon jugs are gone altogether. I eventually landed on coconut milk as my go-to substitute for milk, but it would hardly be accurate to say that I switched from one to the other. At the same time that I made the substitution, the quantity of product went down by a factor of 10.

Ice cream has held up better than most dairy products, but it has done so by emphasizing smaller specialty products that can be sold at higher prices. When you’re selling a product by the pint, it is a little easier to mark up the price. Since 2000, consumers have mostly moved from half-gallons to pints when it comes to ice cream, and this means we are eating a lot less.

This year, though, may be the year that non-dairy ice cream breaks out. The So Delicious brand has dominated this category over the last decade, but an experiment by Ben & Jerry’s in 2017 went well, so that other brands are now trying the same approach. Given a direct choice, there is no doubt that many consumers will prefer a non-dairy version of ice cream.

The greenhouse effect of dairy products deserves special mention. Cattle are among the largest sources of methane, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, if for a shorter time. Dairy production also generates prodigious amounts of carbon dioxide, mainly because of the huge amounts of food that cattle eat. The net greenhouse effect of dairy products in the United States rivals that of ground transportation — yet given the choice, most people would agree it would be easier to give up dairy products than transportation. In the end, we can’t avoid a climate catastrophe while continuing to eat dairy products in the quantities we do now. For some participants, the climate impact of animal-based food is the main reason for participating in Vegan January.

Let’s not forget, though, that the biggest new year’s resolution in the United States is to lose weight, and that trend too works against milk and dairy products. What other simple lifestyle change lets you lose 1 pound of body fat while saving $14 in grocery spending? Americans are as overweight as ever, so this long-term trend too is likely to lead to a continuing decline in milk along with the junk food category in general.