Demand for dairy products shifted over the years as many Americans tend to drink less fluid milk and consume more dairy items, such as cheese and yogurt.

And staying on top of those trends could be a key to the future success of an industry hit hard by economic struggles exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, according to a panel of consumers from across the country.

Midwest Dairy recently hosted a virtual event, The Dairy Experience, that focused on the industry through the eyes of shoppers through a consumer focus group.

“2020 has challenged us,” said Allen Merrill, chairman of Midwest Dairy. “We need to hear what consumers are saying today so we can adapt for tomorrow. I see this as an opportunity to share ideas and plan for the future.”

A general theme of the feedback from American shoppers revolves around their changing use of dairy products, continued focus on the health benefits of dairy consumption, and growing interest in more information about each product and how it’s produced on farms.

“As a kid, I concentrated on drinking milk, but as an adult, I consume more fermented dairy products, so I’m not actually drinking as much milk,” said Karen, a focus group participant from Des Plaines.

Leah, a public health analyst from Maryland and focus group participant, noted a similar shift in consumption.

“Growing up, I focused on the need to drink milk to grow and for strong bones,” she said. “For me, I don’t consume as much milk now, but I cook with it a lot.”

Meanwhile, focus group participants Mariah from Atlanta said she enjoys trying different cheeses, while Alex, a pediatrician from Seattle, uses a lot of hard parmesan cheese on pastas and salads.

“I think a variety of foods is important for the proper amount of vitamins and minerals,” Alex said.

The personal eating habits reported by the focus group mirror those across the country. Per capita fluid milk consumption declined more than 40%, from 247 to 146 pounds, between 1975 and 2018. However, per capita cheese consumption doubled from 20 to 40 pounds during that time, while more recently butter consumption increased from a low of 4.3 pounds in 2001 to 5.8 pounds in 2018. Whole milk sales also turned higher in recent years for the first time in decades.

One focus group participant noted he’s tired of seeing labels on milk, and knows growth hormones and antibiotics are not an issue for milk as every load gets tested. Instead, he would like to see more information about the cows and milk production.

Nick, a project manager for a real estate brokerage in Des Moines, also would like to see the dairy industry promote more information about milk production and nutrition.

“I think dairy provides a lot of nutrients,” he said. “I’d like to see the industry discuss environmental impacts and what it’s doing to prevent that.”

The panelists also noted, as a whole, they either consume as much or more dairy products since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as they continue to cook and eat more at home.