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Could plant-based milks be putting cows out to pasture?

The popularity of milk, yogurt and cheese made from plants is growing, but preferences seem to be age-related, finds a new survey.
Dairy products vs. plant-based milks
Photograph: Shutterstock

Ice cream is the quintessential summer treat, but this year, consumers may be just as likely to lick a cone filled with coconut milk ice cream as one with classic rocky road.

With the ever-increasing variety and number of plant-based dairy products available, consumers can indulge in a wide choice of dairy-free yogurts, milks, ice creams and cheeses. But while these alternatives are gaining in popularity, there is still strong demand for good old-fashioned cow’s milk.  

A new survey of American adults by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) compares how often and why consumers choose animal-based dairy products vs. plant-based alternatives.

Traditional milks, ice creams, yogurts and cheeses remain popular among dairy consumers—72% include them several times a week, compared to 28% who consume nut-, oat- or soy-based versions.

But preferences seem to divide along age lines, according to the survey. Of those respondents 55 and older, 80% say they consume animal-based dairy foods or beverages several times a week, while 34% of those under 55 opt for plant-based products. Half of adults over 55 say they never consume nondairy alternatives, standing in stark contrast to just under 8% of 18- to 34-year-olds who say the same.

Gender appears to play a role, too: Women (29%) are more likely than men (23%) to sometimes choose both dairy and plant-based milk iterations.

Coffee chains have been leaders in adding plant-based milk as an option, recently creating signature beverages featuring oat, coconut or almond milk. In April, Dunkin' introduced three Coconutmilk Refreshers in strawberry, peach and pomegranate flavors and Peet's has an Oat Milk Horchata Latte as a limited-time offer.

The IFIC survey also took a deep dive into why consumers purchase yogurt. Among the top three reasons were taste (20%), nutritional value (13%) and health benefits (12%).

Among those who cited health as a purchase driver, 25% said digestive and gut health was their most desired benefit, while 24% chose general health and wellness. Many yogurts boast probiotics, which are said to promote a healthy gut. About half of consumers surveyed claimed to be very familiar with and know a lot about probiotics.

Results were derived from online surveys—conducted from April 1-6—of 1,014 adults ages 18 to 80 who consume dairy at least a few times a year. The results were weighted to ensure proportional results and reported by IFIC in “Understanding Dairy Consumers’ Purchasing Behaviors and Habits.”

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