The World Wants Protein. Dairy Builds on That.

Ah, protein –a building block of life. That refreshing post-exercise recovery drink, that yogurt in a school lunch box, that succulent cut of meat, those humble but mighty dry beans. All rich with exquisite chains of amino acids that repair your cells and make new ones. Without protein, we are nothing. With it, we are human, and resilient.

So it’s no wonder that, as people become wealthier, one of the first things they seek out is protein – both more protein and higher-quality protein. And just as protein is a basic need for life, that may be the basic reason why dairy – coveted for its protein and unparalleled in its quality, has been steadily rising as a share of global protein consumption for the entire 21st century.

From our friends at the NMPF/USDEC Economics Unit:

From just under 11.5 percent of global protein consumption to just over 13 percent today, dairy keep inching upward in serving global protein needs. Combine that with the fact that global population itself is growing, and you have a recipe for profound growth in coming decades. Higher population + higher incomes that help consumers meet their daily nutrition needs and access quality nutrients = rising dairy demand.

And who is supplying that dairy? Increasingly, the United States, which saw record exports in 2020, 2021 and 2022. With world-leading sustainability and productivity, U.S. dairy exports have powerhouse potential for a powerhouse product, providing protein to a world in which demand will only rise.

So if you ever hear anyone doubt the importance of dairy exports, or wonder whether international trade is critical to the industry’s future, just show them this chart and say, “It’s the protein, stupid.” Because protein isn’t going away, and dairy’s only becoming more important to providing it.

Now that’s a block to build on.

Butter and Cheese Keep Dairy’s Rise Constant

While we won’t know until Friday whether U.S. per-capita dairy consumption will officially rise for the seventh time in eight years, we do know from preliminary data that domestic use of butter and cheese reached records in 2021. Then again, that’s far from a surprise.


Though other dairy products have had their ups and downs (mostly up), for the past decade butter and cheese have been Old Reliables, with neither ever seeing consumption decline a single time. Their rising popularity has offset drops in fluid-milk consumption (the typical, and inaccurate, trope that anti-dairy activists use to pronounce “death” upon the industry) and is a big part of the industry’s continued success and bright future.

Dairy, as an industry, is in constant evolution, from advances in science to innovations in sustainability. But throughout, “bring on the butter” and “more cheese, please” have been continual refrains.  The data shows it, and there’s no reason think those words won’t echo for years to come.

Dairy’s 2020 Gains Were Steady in a Year That Was Anything But

We’ll spare you the long story of how 2020 was difficult for everyone – assuming you aren’t a time-traveler or a visitor from outer space, you already know it. And if you follow this column, you’ll know that consumers turned to dairy in difficult times, from baking at home to stocking up on fluid milk in the COVID-19 pandemic’s earliest days.

But the final consumption data for 2020 is now in, and the spreadsheet confirms what we already knew in our hearts: For the third consecutive year, U.S. per-capita dairy consumption increased, to 655 pounds per person from 653 pounds in 2019, showing a resilience in dairy that reflects that of those who relied on it.

No eye-poppers in this year’s report. A small uptick in yogurt, a gain in butter as it marches back to 1960’s-level consumption, increased buying of both full-fat and lower-fat ice cream – because what’s a ­­­lockdown without ice cream? And fluid milk consumption held steady, belying the haters who always use receding prominence  as fake evidence of the “death of dairy” even as gains among other dairy products more than outpace any fluid losses.

In the end, “steady” is ­­­what dairy’s been all about. At a time when everything from public health to supply chains have been in upheaval, consumers can count on dairy – for quality, for nutrition, for affordability, and for care in its creation.

2020 is over, and 2021 hasn’t been a picnic either. But we do know – and the data does show – what consumers have counted on throughout. Dairy farmers are proud to provide products that keep the country nourished. They will continue to meet that steadily growing need until current challenges have passed – and far, far beyond.