Could Fermented Dairy Help Save the Failing Dairy Industry?

/ / Businesss, Consumer

As the dairy industry declines rapidly – milk sales plummeted by $1.1 billion in 2018 – fermented dairy could help dairy farmers reclaim the grocery aisle.

More Americans are turning to plant-based options, like nut, oat, rice and soy milk. The demand for milk-based alternatives from companies like Miyoko’s Kitchen (vegan, plant-based dairy products) and Perfect Day Foods (oat milk with fermented yeast) are popular with modern consumers.

But sales are not slowing for fermented milk-based products like kefir and Skyr yogurt.

A study from The Nutrition society published in the Cambridge University Press found multiple health benefits of fermented milk drinks like kefir. Fermented dairy improves digestion, produces anti-inflammatory effects, increases colonization of good gut bacteria and stimulates antioxidants, researchers found. Fermented dairy is high in protein, high in live probiotics and improves lactose digestion.

“Consuming fermented dairy can [help] the digestive system because it actually adds more beneficial bacteria to the system,” said Nicole Dynan, a dietitian with gut health expertise. She spoke to Dairy Australia in an article about the power of fermented dairy. “If we put it in simple terms, most of our bacteria live in the large intestine and can assist that existing population of bacteria to balance out the good and bad. Fermented dairy can contain microbiota that make by-products called short-chain fatty acids that can help release anti-inflammatory benefits into the body.”

“Fermented dairy can also represent a precious source of other nutrients and vitamins such as C and E, while balancing out the ‘bad’ bacteria that can lead to common digestive problems such as bloating, diarrhea, pain and gas,” she says.

Dairy Alternatives Full of “Frankenfood”

Today, 19 percent of yogurt varieties are plant-based. Christopher Malnar, vice president of marketing for Stonyfield, says the ingredient lists on dairy-free yogurts are often alarming. They’re highly processed, full of sugar, chemical stabilizers and what he called “frankenfood.” Organic dairy, meanwhile, is a clean ingredient list with no high processing.

Brands can create demand for dairy again by raising awareness, Malnar said. They can educate on the benefits of dairy and organic products.

“How can we be more innovative as an industry?” Malnar said. “We understand where the market is going [but Stonyfield is] staying true to our core in dairy, recognizing that there are some needs out there.” Stonyfield is currently testing a fruit and vegetable pouch.

Malnar spoke at a panel on organic dairy in September during Natural Products Expo East. When educating consumers on dairy, the panel of organic dairy leaders said it’s important to highlight proper animal treatment. Fairlife Dairy recently came under fire after a video was released of employees abusing calves and cows in a processing facility. Tim Joseph, the founding farmer at Maple Hill Creamery, said he thinks brands lose consumers when they educate them with scientific facts “because it’s just too much information.” Animal welfare is a major consumer driver.

“It’s not whether we think it is right or wrong in the end, it’s what the consumer is looking for,” Joseph said. “Animal welfare is I think the next biggest areas consumers are focusing on.”

Not all Milks Are Equal

A major consumer for plant-based milk: new moms. Mothers, many who adopt a healthy, organic lifestyle once they have children, are turning to dairy alternatives because they believe it’s the healthiest option for their child.

“We’re feeling like we have to go back in time and educate on the value of dairy,” said Melissa Hughes, chief mission officer and general counsel for Organic Valley. “It’s not necessarily to say that plant based isn’t the right thing, but especially for a lot of young moms, make the choice based on good science and good understanding of what the nutritional value is for your child.”

American dietary guidelines dictate that, besides water, milk is the only other drink recommended for children.

Jessica Shade, the director of science programs for the Organic Center, presented findings of a study on modern milk in today’s grocery market, comparing organic and conventional milk. The biggest takeaway: Americans should be choosing dairy milk for the nutritional benefits, and organic milk to avoid exposure to harmful chemicals.

Shade said she was surprised testing milk that non-organic varieties test positive for antibiotics, high levels of growth hormones and pesticide contaminants. “…it is much more ubiquitous than previously thought,” Shade added. Many of these are illegal residues are banned by the Food and Drug Administration. They concentrate highly in cow milk, and research shows they can lead to a wide array of health problems in humans. Allergies, hypersensitivity, rashes, headaches, birth defects, hyperthyroidism are all linked to consuming contaminants in milk.

Organic milk, meanwhile, did not test for any illegal residues.

“The findings about conventional milk are really concerning,” Shade said. “That’s the question that needs to be asked and needs to be addressed – how are these chemicals getting into the milk supply when they shouldn’t be there? The difference between organic and conventional are extremely significant…the easy way to avoid all of these residues is by choosing organic.”

The American dairy industry is in a period of oversupply, hurting farmers especially who are forced to throw out milk. On average, it takes three years to transition a dairy farm from conventional to organic.

“The challenge with any dairy, whether it’s organic dairy or conventional dairy, is balancing this perishable product that’s coming out of the cows and making sure you put it into the system as quickly as you can in order to return a value,” said Hughes.

“We’ve seen the slowdown. For Organic Valley, we’ve seen the slowdown of consumption in fluid milk. For us, quality really becomes a very important thing. Volume becomes a very important thing, and how do you control that when most of your volume is folks drinking milk? But at the same time we’ve seen an incredible increase in the consumption of butter. Everyone loves butter and fat. It’s really pushing some pressures on our supply chain to make that all work together. We’re starting to see more opportunity.”