Drivers of choice for fluid milk versus plant-based alternatives: What are consumer perceptions of fluid milk?

Discipline: consumers; Key words: milk, non-dairy alternatives, fat content, lactose-free

Globally milk consumption has declined for decades whereas consumption of non-dairy alternatives has increased. A better understanding of why consumers purchase milk or non-dairy alternatives will probably assist increased sales of milk or at least maintain current sales. This was the topic of an investigation by Dr K.S. McCarthy and colleagues in the US. Their objective was (1) to determine the extrinsic attributes that drive purchase within each product category, and (2) to determine the personal values behind the purchase of each beverage type to enable further understanding why particular attributes are important. The results of their study were published in the Journal of Dairy Science, Volume 100 of 2017, page 6125 to 6138, the title being: Drivers of choice for fluid milk versus plant-based alternatives: What are consumer perceptions of fluid milk?

The authors used an online survey with 702 dairy consumers, 172 non-dairy consumers and 125 consumers of both beverages. Individual interviews were conducted with 75 milk consumers, 68 plant-based alternative consumers and 78 consumers of both products.

The results showed that fat content was the most important attribute for dairy milk followed by package size and label claims. Consumers of milk preferred 1 or 2% fat content, gallon or half-gallon packaging and conventionally pasteurized supermarket-brand milk. Sugar level was the most important attribute for plant-based beverages, followed by plant source and package size. Almond milk was the most desirable plant source and half-gallon packaging was the most preferred packaging. The interview results suggested that maintaining a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle was important to all consumer groups. Lactose-free was also an important attribute for plant-based alternative consumers and consumers of both dairy and non-dairy. A distinguishing characteristic of those who only drink non-dairy plant-based alternatives was that plant-based beverages contribute to a goal to consume less animal products, beliefs about bad animal treatment and perceived lesser effect on the environment than fluid milk. Interestingly, milk consumers perceive milk as a staple food item.

Comments: Although this was a US study, the perceptions in SA do not differ much as the popular media often gives preference to sensational or emotional and non-scientific arguments. This will not change. However, the dairy industry must continue hammering away by focussing on the nutritional value of milk and educating consumers about misconceptions regarding milk. Additionally, maybe beverage manufacturers should consider developing lactose-free milk that is appealing to consumers in flavour!