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‘Back to basics’ nutrition approach creates dairy opportunities [Interview]

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Increasingly, consumers are less focused on cutting things out of their diet, and more interested in ensuring nutritional balance and supporting sustainable practices. Market research expert Mike Hughes believes that this trend could greatly benefit the dairy industry, which produces natural, clean label products that are often locally sourced.
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Mike Hughes is Head of Research and Insight at FMCG Gurus, a consultancy which provides market research and insight into consumer attitudes and behaviours across the food, beverage, and supplement markets worldwide. Mike will be participating in Fi Global Insight’s Dairy Deep Dive Day on 5 April. Click here to register for the event.

Mike, your presentation examines how the dairy industry can capitalise on consumers adopting more of a ‘back-to-basics approach’ to nutrition. Could you explain a little about what you mean by this approach?

“Dairy has had a fairly negative image in recent years, in part because people have been focused on high fat content of products, as well as rising levels of obesity. Healthy eating was associated with avoidance and weight loss. More recently however, consumers have taken a broader approach to achieving a healthier diet, where it is less about avoiding certain products as having everything in the right balance. In other words, eating healthier is not so much about achieving short term goals as about a way of life.

“In practice, this means moving away from processed products and convenience health boosts, and getting back to basics. Consumers are buying more fruit and veg and dairy, and some are buying meat and fish. Dairy has really benefitted from this transition, because consumers recognise that yoghurt, milk and cheese are full of calcium, protein, vitamins and minerals. Consumers are saying that these products, as part of a balanced diet, are good for them, and they taste good.”

How has the Covid pandemic influenced or indeed accelerated this consumer transition towards back-to-basics nutrition?

“When Covid came along, people definitely became more conscious about their health, even if they were not necessarily in a high-risk category. People of all ages began to wonder if they were working too hard, didn’t exercise enough, or if their immune system was not as good as it should be. This led to two things.

“All of a sudden, they found themselves with more free time in the kitchen, and a desire to use fresh, healthy and locally sourced produce. With a back-to-basics approach to nutrition, consumers found that health eating didn’t have to be expensive, and didn’t have to involve a compromise on taste.”

What advice would you give dairy manufacturers interested in capitalising on consumer demand for natural and more locally sourced products?

“I would say that trust and transparency are key. Consumers have become far less accepting of being misled over the nutritional content of products, in part because some products in the past have been marketed as being some kind of nutritional magic bullet. The dairy industry should provide consumers with information, and also tell a story about how their product is made. Which region is your milk sourced from, for example, and are the cows grass-fed? Being chemical-free is also a really big plus. Ultimately, let the consumer make up their own mind.”

Sustainability is becoming a key watch word across the food industry. How is this trend being manifested in the dairy sector?

“The dairy industry has in many ways been a pioneer in sustainability, with electric milk floats in some countries before the concept of sustainability was even a concept! The product itself is natural and bottled without any chemicals; it is about as fresh as you can get. Dairy firms can look into shortening supply chains, and perhaps focus on regionality in order to present a better image to consumers.”

How would you evaluate levels of consumer knowledge and awareness when it comes to issues surrounding sustainability? 

“I think there are still a lot of misconceptions. Every product has a carbon footprint - it is what we do about this that is important. Cattle farming and sustainability are not mutually exclusive for example; small-scale dairy farmers can offset their carbon footprint over a number of years. And local milk producers who distribute locally might have less of a carbon footprint than a product imported from elsewhere. Brands could perhaps do more to educate consumers about these issues.”

How would you assess the prospects of the dairy industry over the next few years in terms of really tapping into this trend of back-to-basics nutrition?

“I think that the dairy market is ready for a reinvigoration. We could see a counter-trend away from plant-based diets, with questions over the extent to which a plant-based diet is more nutritious. The ice cream market for example has successfully repositioned itself by offering high-protein, low-sugar products, turning the idea of ice cream as an inherent indulgence into something that is guilt-free.”

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