Navigating Changing Consumer Expectations Around Nutrition

Jean Ragalie-Carr, RDN, LDN, FAND President, National Dairy Council Executive Vice President, Dairy Management Inc.

March is National Nutrition Month, a time we’re reminded how the idea of “nutrition and health” is evolving among today’s consumers.

Jean Ragalie-Carr, RDN, LDN, FAND President, National Dairy Council Executive Vice President, Dairy Management Inc.

According to the 2018 International Food Information Council (IFIC) Food and Health Survey, consumers’ top three desired benefits are cardiovascular health, weight management and energy. Yet, 80 percent are confused about what to eat due to conflicting information. They are concerned about how their food is produced and 59 percent want more sustainable production.

While there are challenges, there also are opportunities for dairy to be part of the solution, helping consumers achieve their nutritional goals while demonstrating dairy’s commitment to sustainable and responsible production.

For 100-plus years, National Dairy Council, overseen by your dairy promotion checkoff, has invested in research that demonstrates the vital role dairy plays in people’s diets and health. For example, milk, cheese and yogurt – regardless of fat level – are associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. And other products, like butter, have been linked to neutral to positive benefits, although this science is still emerging.

Milk, cheese and yogurt provide protein, calcium and B vitamins. Dairy provides energy and offers a sense of feeling fuller longer as part of diets higher in protein. And dairy contributes to healthy eating plans that, when calorie controlled, can be part of weight management goals.

Most recently, 20-plus years of dairy-farmer-funded research has revealed that contrary to popular belief, milkfat is associated with neutral to positive cardiovascular benefits. Our research has led to more acceptance for whole milk dairy foods to be incorporated into overall, balanced eating patterns. Federal dietary guidance recommends low-fat and fat-free dairy foods and limiting saturated fat intake to no more than 10 percent of daily calories. That means moderate amounts of whole milk dairy can be part of a healthy eating plan, as long as you balance your intake with other foods containing saturated fat.

Your local and national checkoff staff works with the country’s leading health and wellness organizations and thought leaders to communicate these research results, helping them to understand and share the role dairy plays in this evolution of nutrition, health and responsible production.

All good for dairy. But what about the plant-based diet conversation?

A plant-based diet is based on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, accompanied by dairy foods and other sources of protein like meat, chicken, fish, eggs, etc. Consumers may use a plant-based food or beverage to fill a specific need or try something new, but almost all households still purchase dairy overall.[1] It appears to be a matter of “and” vs. “either/or,” because people like to have choice and variety. We need to understand and adapt to consumers’ needs and wants.



We also can look at it as a “plus”: It’s not plants versus animals, it’s plants plus animals. Milk and whole grain cereal … yogurt and fruit … broccoli and cheese. Afterall, Americans are falling short on vegetables and dairy the most when it comes to meeting Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommendations, so we can help them meet their daily needs for both food groups.

Nutrition, health and … the environment

All foods come with an environmental footprint, yet we need a variety of foods from all groups to not only survive, but to thrive. It’s about each food group working to continuously improve to have the smallest impact on the environment, while having the biggest impact on health.

Some people have wrongly pointed the finger at dairy when it comes to questions about what foods are better for the environment. Farmers and the industry have been continuously improving dairy’s environmental impact and that’s a story people need to hear.

Today, “healthy” has evolved from just being about “free from disease” to a more comprehensive view of the health of people, communities and the planet.

The good news? The checkoff learned where dairy stands by doing a Life Cycle Assessment, which assesses the environmental, economic and social impact of a product throughout its lifespan. The results showed U.S. dairy contributes just 2 percent of greenhouse gases (GHG). Additionally, the dairy community is working to further reduce GHG emissions by 25 percent by 2020.

The real story about dairy’s contributions to nutrition, health and sustainable food systems aligns nicely with consumers’ expectations. And it is a story that is being shared with influencers and those who impact food and dietary guidelines.

The work has just started to develop the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which impact from how health and wellness professionals counsel their clients to how schools develop menus. Through National Dairy Council, the checkoff will provide informational scientific updates during the public comment periods on peer-reviewed dairy nutrition and health research and information to be considered in the development of the guidelines.

Through the research farmers invest in, the commitment by farmers to responsible production and high-quality nutrition, dairy is well-positioned to meet an evolving consumer population and to deliver great-tasting foods they can feel good about.

For more information, go to and Contact us with your thoughts and questions at [email protected].

[1] From IRI Consumer & Shopper Insights Advantage Database, we know that 98% of US households purchased cheese (at least once) in 2017.

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