Parents’ implicit perceptions of dairy milk and plant-based milk alternatives.

Discipline: consumers; Keywords: consumers, parents, milk, attitudes, plant-based alternatives.

In many countries, milk consumption has steadily declined. At the same time, sales of plant-based milk alternatives (PBA) are increasing. For example, sales of PBA in the US increased 9% in 2018 as sales of dairy milk decreased 6%, with PBA projected to comprise 18.5% of the total milk market share by 2023. Consumer motivations for switching from dairy to PBA are complex. The PBA often use messaging related to sustainability, naturalness, and human treatment of animals, emphasizing how these products are ethical/socially conscious alternatives that fill the same role as traditional dairy. One question then is how does the history of milk consumption by an individual informs his/her future consumption and perceptions of milk.

Milk consumption is motivated by both familiarity and habit and usually decreases with age. However, consumption during childhood and adolescence increases the chances of lifetime milk consumption. Understanding how parents perceive dairy milk and other dairy foods further enables development of dairy-positive messaging that aligns with their perceptions. The objective of the research by Dr A.N. Schiano and colleagues, done in North-Carolina, therefore was to understand parent belief systems around fluid dairy milk and plant-based alternatives (PBA). The outcome of the investigation was published in the Journal of Dairy Science, Volume 105 of 2022, page 4946 to 4960. The title of the paper is: Parents’ implicit perceptions of dairy milk and plant-based milk alternatives.

This goal was accomplished by assessing parents’ implicit attitudes toward dairy milk and PBA with an implicit bias exercise, followed by qualitative interviews to understand explicitly stated purchase motivations and guided recall of information heard about dairy milk and PBA to better understand external influences on milk perception.

The majority of parents (73.4%) implicitly associated dairy milk with positive attributes compared with those with a positive association with PBA (13.8%) or with a neutral bias (12.7%). The stronger a parent’s implicit bias toward PBA, the more likely they were to purchase these products either alongside or as a replacement for dairy milk. Eighty-five percent of parents in the study could recall drinking milk at home as a child, and 58% remembered encouragement from their parents to drink milk. However, only 38% encouraged their own children to drink milk (the majority, 55%, were neutral toward their children’s milk consumption). Generally, negative media messaging toward dairy milk and positive messaging toward PBA may contribute to this trend, even if consumers are not explicitly aware of their perception changes. Seventy-seven percent of parents felt generally confident in choosing dairy milk or PBA for their children. However, only 26% of parents felt that nothing about dairy milk or PBA information or messaging was confusing. Sources of uncertainty about dairy milk included hormones and antibiotics, animal welfare, ecological sustainability, potential contamination, and intolerances or allergies.

The authors concluded that if the most commonly encountered and recalled concerns about milk from parents are addressed, dairy producers may be able to increase trust and implicit bias toward dairy milk compared with PBA.