One year ago, the number of millennials surpassed the number of baby boomers.

“There are 76 million millennials, which are the best-educated and most-influential generation in the history of mankind. They are real trendsetters,” said Brian Boyle, managing director of PricewaterhouseCoopers Corporate Finance.

This new generation, defined as those ages 20 to 36 in 2017, have different views about food than my generation of baby boomers. We boomers learned that products with low-fat, low-calorie and low-carb claims were healthy. But for younger adults, clean label and unprocessed have become synonymous with healthy.

Shifting consumption and attitudes

A recent PEW study reveals a major shift in dairy consumption from my generation to the present.

“Americans are drinking 42% less milk than they did in 1970: 12.6 gallons a year, equivalent to 4.8 ounces a day,” the report states. “However, we’re eating a lot more cheese: 21.9 pounds a year, nearly three times the average annual consumption in 1970. And yogurt has soared in popularity, from negligible levels in 1970 to almost 1.2 gallons per person per year in 2014 – a 1,700% increase.”

In order to appeal to younger adults, food companies need to develop a food story. For processors of dairy products, that story might begin at the farm.

“Because ultimately it’s about one health for all — a healthy animal, a healthy person as well as a healthy environment,” said Todd Armstrong, senior director of global market access for Elanco Animal Health. “Dairy processors can convey healthy practices to millennials by communicating through those social channels where they receive information. By developing content that is open, honest and simple, we can help them understand how dairies keep animals healthy and responsibly treat sick animals while safeguarding sustainable, conventional dairy farming practices for the future.”

“According to the International Food Information Council 2016 survey, millennials are more likely to identify natural or organic foods and those foods with few ingredients as contributing to healthy eating patterns. They also are more open to consuming fats and oil. Millennials may be the right consumers for organic full-fat dairy products that have short ingredient lists,” said Michelle Matto, a consultant on nutrition and labeling for the International Dairy Foods Association.

Another Pew Research Center survey indicated that younger adults are more likely than older adults to shop organic (61% vs. 45%), and to avoid genetically modified foods (48% vs. 29%). The same study shows that women care more deeply about the issue of genetically modified foods than men (20% vs. 12%).

Views on proteins, sugar

That IFIC survey analyzed views of 1,000 adults ages 18 to 80, and revealed weaknesses and opportunities for dairy. Of concern, adult opinions are shifting on the healthfulness of animal versus plant proteins. The survey asked adults how their opinions have changed in the past year. While 12% of adults believe that animal protein is more healthful, 15% believe that it is less healthful. In contrast, 21% believe that protein from plant sources is more healthful, and only 8% believe that it is less healthful.

The IFIC survey provided good news about nutrients present in dairy. When adults were asked which nutrients they were trying to consume, the top response was protein, topping the list at 64% (up from 54% in 2015.) Potassium was listed at 48% (up from 26% in 2015), and probiotics was listed at 33% (up from 19% in 2015.)

Topping the IFIC list of components to avoid was “added sugars,” which 61% of adults were trying to avoid. American consumers are also growing wary of low-calorie sweeteners, with 33% of survey respondents believing that they are less healthy than they did in 2015. Views on potassium and added sugars may have been influenced by the new Nutrition Facts regulations.

Price and taste matter

Dairy formulators should remember that taste and price still matter.

“Roughly 55% of people 18 and older make less than $30,000 a year. They specifically buy on price. We call them ‘survivalists,’ said Boyle of PricewaterhouseCoopers. He said that “Selectionists” are less price sensitive and they tend to be more affluent and better educated.

“They focus on and purchase specialty, gourmet and organic, and are a very powerful group in this country as well. Millennials, for example, prefer butter over margarine and sugar over sugar substitutes, while we boomers made the opposite choices,” Boyle said.

Taste can trump all other factors. When I asked my favorite millennial why she pours almond milk in her coffee, her answer surprised me. Her reasons had nothing to do with lactose intolerance or a preference for plant proteins. She simply likes the taste.