by Sally Colby

Although statistics regarding dairy consumption are collected nationally, the results are relevant to small producers. As she explained the concept of how small-scale dairy processors can use such statistics, Sarah Cornelisse, Penn State senior Extension associate in agricultural entrepreneurship and business management, stated that the per capita consumption of dairy products increased from approximately 540 pounds per person in 1975 to 655 pounds in 2020.

“The knowledge gained [through consumer surveys] can help identify new opportunities,” said Cornelisse, “perhaps with new products, collaborations or new markets. Marketing can also be enhanced through a more complete understanding of consumers – those they currently market and sell to as well as other potential consumer groups.” Market drivers for dairy foods

Once armed with national statistics, producers can determine trends at smaller, more local geographic levels. Trends should also be relevant to what the producer is marketing. For example, for fluid milk consumption over a recent three-month period, only 65% of consumers had purchased milk. Cornelisse said while looking at fluid milk consumption over three months may not seem an accurate method to determine actual dairy consumption, it is reflective of routine purchasing behaviors.

One popular dairy product for many new dairy businesses is cheese, and although it dropped off a bit in 2020, cheese consumption has grown consistently over time. Cornelisse stated that last autumn, it was estimated there would be growth in cheese sales due to increased eating at home due to COVID.

“It’s interesting to look at consumption trends by different cheese varieties,” said Cornelisse. “While cheddar and mozzarella are the most consumed cheeses, several others have seen double digit growth over the past decade. The top three include American (other than cheddar), Muenster and Hispanic cheeses, which have all have per capita increased consumption by more than 35% since 2010. Three other cheeses – brick, Swiss and bleu – have seen a decrease in consumption over that same time period.”

There’s a lot of diversity in cheese products, including the type of milk used. “More cheese is made from goat and sheep milk in addition to cows’ milk,” said Cornelisse. “Last year, 20% of consumers indicated they had eaten goat or sheep milk cheese in the past three months.”

Cornelisse explained the importance of understanding market drivers, which are consumers’ underlying reasons for their purchases. “Those reasons are the ‘why’ for purchasing trends,” she said. “Consumers’ why is driven by their beliefs and values – their psychographics.” She identified five main drivers as well-being, lifestyle, experience, ethics and values and COVID.

Well-being is the state of being comfortable, healthy or happy, and food can contribute to those aspects. “More than half of consumers indicate they are putting thought into what they eat or drink,” said Cornelisse. “In a 2020 survey, 71% of respondents agreed that it was important or very important to choose food and drink products that positively boosted nutrition or body function.”

While decreasing sugar consumption is an ongoing priority for many consumers, over the past year, high protein content has become a nutritional priority for dairy products. Consumers are interested in products that have ingredients or attributes that promote aspects of physical and emotional well-being. “There’s a great deal of overlap between nutrition and functional benefits,” said Cornelisse. “For value-added dairy products, it becomes a marketing and communication issue to make consumers aware of those aspects.”