For the better part of 50 years, milkfat has gotten a bad rap with consumers. Meanwhile, the U.S. dairy industry has continued to fight a seemingly uphill battle touting the health benefits of whole milk.
“We’re trying to undo 50 years of dogma,” said Greg Miller, global chief science officer for the National Dairy Council.
But the dairy industry is beginning to see some payoff from longtime, farmer checkoff-supported efforts to bring whole milk products back into the good graces of consumers and nutritionists.
“I do feel that we’ve turned the corner,” Miller said in an April 17 media call in which he shared progress on whole milk and whole-milk dairy foods research led by the NDC and shared insights on dietary guidance, including the basis for milk options served as part of the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs.
“We see emerging data around whole-milk dairy products that may be strong enough for the 2020 (federal dietary) guidelines to get some flexibility in the recommendation to at least allow it as a choice for dairy in meeting dietary guidelines,” he said.
Consumers are paying attention to recent research showing that milkfat may help reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, according to Adam Landau, vice president and partner lead for Dairy Management Inc.
“Consumers are listening,” Landau said. “They’re feeling better about putting whole milk into the cart.”
Five years ago, whole milk made up 30 percent of total retail milk sales, he said. Last year, and so far this year, they make up 40 percent. While more consumers are giving whole milk another look, those already on board are drinking more of it.
Whole milk products, in recent years, have seen average annual growth of as much as 4 percent. Flavored whole milk fares even better, at 6 percent, according to Landau.
“We don’t really see a reason for this to drop off,” he said.
Miller said farmers often ask him what’s going on with milkfat research and when whole milk might get back into schools, but “it’s a bit of a complicated story.”
The industry has long invested in research aimed at new opportunities for selling more dairy products, increasing dairy consumption and breaking down barriers toward those goals. Among the success stories has been flavored milk, which has been positioned as a great recovery beverage after exercising.
“Now, we see it in almost every locker room across the country, and sales are doing pretty good,” he said. “That doesn’t happen without dairy farmer investment and research.”
For years, consumers, as well as nutritionists sand health professionals, have been concerned about saturated fats including milkfat, linking it to an increased risk of heart disease, Miller said.
“But farmers said there’s something different about milkfat,” he said. “We started investing in research to see what’s unique about milkfat. Is it different from saturated fat from other sources?”
He said they found that all dairy products, regardless of fat level, provide health benefits, especially with regard to reduced risk of chronic disease. Studies show that people who consume three servings of dairy a day vs. one or fewer have better bone and heart health, a healthier body weight and composition, lower blood pressure and a reduced risk of stroke and Type 2 diabetes.
But differentiating whole milk from lower-fat milk was key, Miller said. The consensus in the health community is that milkfat is “neutral to beneficial.” Research shows the consumption of milkfat, which includes 400 different types of fatty acids, supports the reduction of certain chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and stroke.
“Having some milkfat in your diet actually provides some benefit,” he said. “We have been funding that research the last five years or so. We are seeing some movement and hope it will be reflected in (the 2020) dietary guidelines.”
Changing the federal guidelines is the dairy industry’s best bet for getting whole milk back into schools, he said.
“I think we’ve really changed the knowledge out there,” Miller said.
“Consumers hear that science and adapt much more quickly than health professionals do.”
But, Landau said, both consumers and retailers are recognizing this trend, and the dairy industry must ramp up to fill the growing demand for whole milk with a range of innovative products.