As a kid in the 80s and early 90s, there were two acceptable drinks in my house: milk and Kool-Aid. While the latter was reserved for after school, the former was served up at every meal as a vital food group alongside canned green beans or corn warmed up in our (brand new!) microwave. My mom would pouring herself a second or third cup from the handled jug and remind my sister and I to drain our glasses lest our teeth grow brittle and bones snap from one errant move on the monkey bars.
So when I went off to college, sipping soda or juice in the dorm cafeteria felt like rebellion. It was one that would persist indefinitely. These days I can’t even remember the last time I drank milk not mixed with coffee, ice cream or a smoothie. As for my own school-age kids? They get to choose between milk and water — no consumption minimums. Even my mom gave up guzzling it a decade ago to save on calories.
My family’s not alone in our weaning from the white stuff. Milk consumption has fallen 40 percent since 1975 — the year my sister was born — with the steepest decline coming after 2010. The number of licensed dairy farms also dropped by more than half since 2003, the year data collection began, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation. Not even a clever ad campaign with milk-mustachioed A-listers (Beyonce! Britney Spears! Jennifer Aniston!) could reverse the downward trend.
Over the years, experts say the decline can’t be traced to one factor, but rather a perfect storm of shifts in the market and population. The rocket-like growth of soy, almond, oat and other plant-based milk alternatives certainly cut into dairy milk sales; plant-based milk purchases were replacing dairy milk one-for-one. But given just how much cow’s milk consumers were still buying compared to alternatives, the impact was relatively small, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The stunning amount of other beverages pouring into the market in since the 80s and people’s changing tastes likely also played a role. Previously, when water, milk, tea, coffee and soft drinks were pretty much your only drink choices, most kids as well as many adults (hi, mom!), drank milk with meals. That changed; sales of non-alcoholic beverages began its steady climb as milk consumption — and consumption during lunch and dinner specifically — fell. Soda, juices, sports drinks and other beverages were not competing for your glass.
Experts say that health, environmental and animal welfare concerns have all also had a chilling effect on milk. People have become more aware of lactose intolerance and sensitivity issues, as well as the benefits of plant-based diets and low-calorie beverages. Dairy has also gotten a bit of a bad rap over the years. For one, there’s been skepticism and conflicting information on milk’s long-touted health benefits (although studies, including a large 2021 umbrella review of the available research supported milk as part of a healthy diet.) There have also been questions about GMOs in feed, hormones and medications given to cows as well as inhumane conditions and the environmental impact of large dairy farms.
Bottom line: While Americans seem to have lost their taste for drinking milk straight up, we’re all still really into dairy. As of 2017, 92 percent of households still bought cow’s milk, and consumption of cheese, yogurt and butter have all been steadily increasing — butter and cheese are up 24 and 19 percent in the last decade alone, according to the USDA. That tracks with my own experience. While we may not be sporting milk mustaches, our fingers are deliciously greasy from buttered waffles, grilled cheese sandwiches and homemade nachos.