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Whole Milk Rising to the Top

  • At the Strafford Organic Creamery, Robert Thompson, left, and Scott Rowe bottle cream-line whole milk in Strafford, Vt., on Jan. 23, 2017. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Amy Huyffer of Strafford Organic Creamery separates eggs to make ice cream at the farm and creamery on Jan. 23, 2017 in Strafford, Vt. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Cream-line whole milk just bottled at Strafford Organic Creamery on Jan. 23, 2017 in Strafford, Vt.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Consumers seem to have decided fat is no longer the enemy, at least when it comes to dairy products.

Despite formal dietary recommendations that continue to urge people to eat fat-free and low-fat dairy products in place of higher calorie full-fat options, some shoppers — both in the Upper Valley and nationally — are shifting to whole milk and products, particularly yogurt, made from it.

Upper Valley dairy farmers and grocers have seen evidence of consumers purchasing more full-fat dairy in recent years. They say the trend appears to be related to consumer demand for fuller tasting and less processed foods, and to recent studies showing that whole milk — milk with 3.25 percent butterfat — and other full-fat dairy products are good for you.

Customers at the Upper Valley Food Co-op are among those who are interested in whole fat dairy products, said Adam Gordon, co-manager of the White River Junction store’s grocery department.

“Back in the day, everyone thought saturated fat was a big no-no,” he said.

But now, customers are looking for more whole foods, he said. He estimated that he orders eight times as much whole milk yogurt as low fat, for example. They want “the full spectrum of nutrients that were there to start with,” he said.

Nationally, whole milk sales grew by nearly 6 percent in 2016, while overall milk sales were down about 2 percent, according to retail data from IRI, a Chicago-based international market research firm, which was provided by the New England Dairy and Food Council. Whole milk’s growth builds on a similar gain in 2015 and a smaller gain in 2014.

According to the same data, sales in the Twin States also show this trend. If anything, the new preference is even stronger in Vermont and New Hampshire, where sales of whole milk began growing in 2013, a year ahead of the national trend.

The rate of annual growth in whole milk sales is particularly strong in Vermont — up nearly 12 percent in 2016, according to IRI retail data. In fact, milk sales overall were up nearly 3 percent in Vermont last year, bucking the national downward trend. In New Hampshire, sales of whole milk are up almost 6 percent, in line with the national trend.

While whole milk’s market share is growing — now up to 34 percent in Vermont and nationally and 30 percent in New Hampshire — there is still room for growth, according to IRI’s data. Overall, consumers still show a slight preference for reduced-fat milk, which had a 37 percent market share nationally in 2016.

In yogurt, while low-fat and fat-free yogurts still hold the bulk of the yogurt market — with 48 and 40 percent, respectively — whole milk yogurt grew at a rate of more than 20 percent last year, according to IRI’s data. There is room for growth there, too, as whole milk yogurt held just 11 percent of the market in 2016.

The whole milk trend is motivated by a small batch of studies indicating such products are healthier than previously thought, said Hannah Brilling, a nutrition specialist for the Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society, in an email last week.

“There are studies that show that the saturated fat in milk products is probably processed differently in our bodies, and that it probably doesn’t cause the increased risk in heart disease like the saturated fats found in meat products and butter,” she wrote.

But, Brilling said consumers should take the new findings with a grain of salt, so to speak.

Current research is “not enough for the USDA or the national Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to conclusively put dairy fats in a separate category from other saturated fats,” Brilling wrote. “And, right now, the recommendation is to limit any kind of saturated fat to less than 10 percent of total caloric intake.”

It is very difficult to study the health benefits, or the lack of them, in a specific food, Brilling noted. Isolating the effects of one food can be difficult, as is separating the health effects of diet from those of other things such as exercise, genetics and environmental factors, she said.

But, the benefits of a diverse diet — one that could include whole milk — are clear.

“There is plenty of evidence to support that eating a variety of healthy foods in moderation will help you live long and healthy,” she wrote.

Consumers should aim for a diet including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish (once or twice a week), lean meats and fiber, Brilling said.

“You may choose to incorporate whole fat dairy into your healthy diet, but do so in the context of appropriate total calories, variety and balance throughout the day,” she said.

The trend toward whole milk dairy products is also spurred by consumers’ interest in cleaner labels — foods with fewer ingredients — said Ally Gallop, manager of nutrition communications for the New England Dairy and Food Council.

When fat-free diets were in fashion, consumers switched to products that were lower in fat, but higher in sugar, which left them “almost feeling — I don’t want to say — duped,” Gallop said in a phone interview earlier this month.

Now consumers are looking to “take control of what they’re eating,” she said. “If you have an apple on your plate, you know it’s an apple.”

The same is true with milk, she said. “That’s why dairy’s such a cool product.”

The shift toward whole milk signals a bright spot in terms of dairy consumption at a generally difficult time for dairy producers, said Paul Doton, a Barnard dairy farmer and a member of the board of Agri-Mark — a dairy farmer cooperative that makes products such as Cabot cheese. For farmers, growth in whole milk sales means that producing milk that’s high in protein and butterfat can mean a slight boost to their milk checks.

“That’s the area where farmers can have more control over the price,” Doton said.

That, along with producing high quality milk, which is low in bad bacteria, can make a difference for farmers who generally face low milk prices, Doton said.

In the Northeast, farmers earned $18.05 per 100 pounds of milk on average in 2016, about 8 percent less than in 2015, according to the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service Dairy Program.

As interest in whole milk products has grown, sales of products such as low- and non-fat cheese have decreased, said Doton.

Amy Huyffer, co-owner of Strafford Organic Creamery and Rockbottom Farm, has also noticed a steep drop in skim milk sales in the past two years.

“A store that would take four or five cases a week is taking one,” she said.

She doesn’t blame consumers for making the switch.

“I drink whole milk,” she said. “I think whole milk is delicious.”

Her customers often tell her that they started buying whole milk for a young child they are weaning from breast feeding, and then, the whole family switches.

“ ‘Now we all drink whole milk because it tastes so good,’ ” is a common refrain, Huyffer said.

For Strafford Organic, the downside of selling less skim milk is that there is less cream to use to make the company’s ice cream. Sometimes, Huyffer feeds the farm’s pigs skim milk in order to ensure she has the cream she needs.

While it might seem like a waste to feed perfectly good milk to pigs, she said, “the pork’s really good.”

And, in the scheme of things that can ruin a farmer’s day — rain while they’re trying to get the hay in or a cow falling ill — having to feed some skim milk to the pigs isn’t the worst, she said.

“We just roll with it,” she said.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.