MADISON — Jen Walsh, vice president of insights and strategy for Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, gave those in attendance at her session at Dairy Strong on Jan. 22 a fair warning: she would be using the words “almond milk” in her presentation. She asked them to hold their boos and their shoes because even though she doesn’t like using the words to describe what she called an “almond beverage,” “almond milk” is the term the consumer is using every day.

“I will tell you, consumers say the words almond milk,” she said. “And it’s important to speak the same language as the consumer.”

She has some qualms with the word “plant-based” too. Plant-based may sound healthy to the consumer, even though she argued that a candy bar could be plant-based as it’s made of sugar and a cigarette could even be plant-based because it’s made from tobacco.

“Plant-based sounds a lot healthier than it is,” she said. “If you look at the nutrition label, the ingredients are not leafy greens.”

Dairy farmers and those in the dairy industry tend to share concerns about the rise of these plant-based, non-dairy products, but Walsh explained that the research shows a very small percentage of consumers buying these products over milk and instead, consumers are replacing traditional fluid milk with other beverages like bottled water, coffee, tea and juices.

Americans consumed almost 7.6 million fewer gallons of milk from 2016 to 2017, leading Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin to team up with Dairy Management Inc. to better understand what consumers purchased in 2016 vs. 2017. The data collected from consumers showed changes in how much milk they bought and also the alternative products they bought to replace or substitute for milk.

“Fifty-three percent of that volume went to bottled water,” she said, even with rising concerns about plastic in the environment and water rights issues, among others. “Bottled water has been responsible for half of volume lost year over year.”

Eleven percent of the volume lost went to coffee, a beverage area that has seen much innovation. It is often consumed in the morning as well, so it could be replacing milk at breakfast time in households across America.

Vegan or plant-based milks made up seven percent of the volume lost, leading Walsh to say they “are not really the primary competitor” for fluid milk.

“We tend to think they are the ones holding us back, but the products stealing our share are others,” she added. “I don’t think we should take our eyes off of them though, but put it all in perspective.”

However, a research study conducted by Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin found that consumers may have an inaccurate view about the nutritional value of plant-based and alternative milks. The study used 800 consumers with even proportions of each of the four generations and asked them various questions about how they perceive the nutrition of fluid milk vs. almond milk.

They first asked the consumers to compare to nutrition labels — 1% milk and almond milk — and without telling them which label belonged to which product, asked them which one was more nutritious based on the label alone. Seventy-two percent perceived the almond milk more nutritious because of its lower calorie and sugar content; however, those who selected the milk believed it more nutritious because of its protein content.

When shown the list of ingredients in each product, consumers in the study leaned more toward the milk as more nutritious as it has few ingredients compared to the almond milk. The majority of consumers in the study thought the dairy milk had more protein and more calcium than its almond milk counterpart, but there was still a significant amount of those consumers who believed otherwise.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s true — it’s what the consumer perceives is true,” Walsh said.

Sustainability is becoming more important to consumers as well, but the definition of sustainability is different for each person and each company. Another study Walsh referenced found that consumers are pretty happy with sustainability in the dairy industry, but more and more consumers are not sure how to tell if something has been produced sustainably.

“It’s a huge opportunity for us,” Walsh said. “Sustainability and nutrition are intertwined in consumers’ minds. They think if it’s better for the planet, it’s better for me.”

Other opportunities coming down the pike for the dairy industry, specifically fluid milk, include a call-out of added sugars on nutrition labels; having a clean label with few ingredients; and the idea of helping the consumer define sustainability.

There are bright spots in fluid milk as well with the rise of lactose free milk, up 11% in 2019; A2 milk, which has also seen tremendous growth; and “premium milk,” using an example of a milk being produced only from Jersey cows.