The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The mysterious case of America’s plummeting milk consumption

Moo-ve over. (Ian Waldie/Bloomberg News)

Not long ago, milk was a standard part of Americans' mornings. Now, the calcium-filled fluid would be lucky to find itself on anyone's mind.

Americans, on average, drink 37 percent less milk today than they did in 1970, according to data from the USDA. Forty years ago, per capita consumption was nearly one and a half cups per day; now it's nearer to 0.8. While the fallout spans every type of cow's milk—whole, low fat, and skim—it's been most unkind to the full fat variety. Whole milk per capita consumption has tumbled by 78 percent since 1970 (from more than 1.1 cups per day to fewer than .24).

What's causing the plummet? Replacement, mostly. Americans are still drinking the same amount in beverages as they did back in the 1970s, only they're now spreading that fluid intake across a much larger pool of beverage options. "We essentially went from milk, carbonated soft drinks (CSDs), coffee, and juice in the 1970s to a myriad of alternatives available today," a report (pdf) published last year by CoBank notes. The "we" in that construction might as well be replaced for "youth," because it's America's young that are letting all that milk sour. The most pronounced declines from the late 1970s to the mid 2000s are in the 2-11 year old, and 12-19 year old demographics.

Parents, it seems, have pulled milk from their children's diets. Schools, too.

Part of that stems from a questioning of the once heralded health benefits of milk. "Fat content, flavorings, and added sugar have all been viewed with disdain as the country struggles with its child obesity epidemic," the CoBank report notes. Americans no longer need milk for Vitamin D and calcium, since they can be had in the form of pills, nutritional bars and health juices. It's not even clear if milk is all that useful in the way of bone development. Or if we're even all that well-equipped to digest it.

And milk is getting expensive—the price of milk rose by nearly 10 percent last year alone.

Milk's fall from grace is a problem for dairy farmers. Just ask Big Dairy—the milk lobby has been scrambling to reconstitute America's appreciation for the white stuff for decades. In recent years, it has tried everything from aggressive marketing for chocolate milk, to a reluctant adoption of non-dairy milk alternatives. But the fast-growing market for soy, almond, and other non-dairy milk replacements has done little to mitigate the industry's utter inability to reinvigorate itself.

Earlier this year, the US Milk Processor Education Program, a USDA-monitored marketing board of American milk processors, abandoned its beloved 20-year old "Got Milk" ad campaign. The reason? Though Americans might have enjoyed it, the array of white mustaches did nothing to boost milk demand—per capita consumption has fallen or remained level in virtually every year, for both whole and reduced and non fat milk alike, since 1993, the year in which the campaign was introduced. The US government still throws hundreds of millions of dollars into the milk industry's hands every year. If the lack of innovation, and inspiration, continues, that's a whole lot of money for a whole lot of disappointment.