MILK IS FAR FROM TRENDY. WITH a crowd of breakfast-beverage options and milk alternatives, Americans have been drinking less dairy for decades.
But while sales of skim have plummeted, whole milk is growing more popular, bringing in $5.3 billion last year, according to market-research firm Mintel. “One of the bright spots is that consumers are moving to higher-fat milk,” says Cary Frye, senior vice president of regulatory affairs at the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), a trade group representing dairy manufacturers and marketers. Whole milk—which is made with 3.25% milk fat—now accounts for 38% of the milk market, compared with 29% five years ago, she says.
Whole milk’s rising reputation is due in part to recent studies that have challenged the long-held belief that low-fat dairy is nutritionally superior, since it contains fewer calories and less saturated fat. “Focusing on low fat is predominantly based on the assumption that saturated fat increases LDL cholesterol,” says Mahshid Dehghan, a nutrition epidemiologist at the Population Health Research Institute in Canada. But full-fat dairy also contains plenty of nutrients, including vitamin K, calcium, magnesium and protein, and some research suggests that fatty acids and microbes in these products may help regulate blood sugar and insulin levels.
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The U.S. dietary guidelines still recommend low- and no-fat dairy. But new research suggests that full-fat dairy may be a healthy choice. In September, Dehghan and her colleagues published an observational study in the Lancet finding that people who ate three servings of dairy per day—especially the whole-fat kind—had lower risks of early death, cardiovascular disease, and stroke than those who ate less than a serving a day. Other research finds that people who eat full-fat dairy are no more likely to develop heart disease than those who eat low-fat versions, and they may even be less prone to Type 2 diabetes and weight gain—probably because they stay full longer. Studies have also found that people who cut their fat intake tend to replace the missing calories with unhealthy refined carbohydrates.
The message seems to be resonating with shoppers. Bolstered by new offerings from brands like Chobani and Stony-field, whole-fat yogurt sales increased 25% from 2016 to 2017, according to the IDFA. The best seller at Siggi’s, which makes thick, Icelandic-style yogurt with milk-fat contents ranging from 0% to 9%, is still fat-free vanilla, but “the whole-milk products are catching up really, really fast,” says the company’s founder, Siggi Hilmarsson. “There’s definitely been a big shift.” (The likely explanation? “It tastes delicious,” he says.)
For that reason, Frye predicts that the high-fat dairy craze will persist. “The research that has been evolving and has been in the general press has given consumers permission to choose products that they like,” she says.