It’s no secret that traditional milk sales have been declining. According to Statistics Canada, per-capita consumption of fluid dairy milk has steadily slipped from 81.79 litres in 2009 to 65.85 litres in 2018. As many consumers turn to alternative “milks” like almond or soy—whether for health reasons or to avoid animal proteins—and with the new Canada’s Food Guide now lumping dairy into “protein” rather than keeping it as its own distinct category, the future for dairy milk would appear somewhat shaky.
But don’t count milk out just yet. Despite the decline, there’s still a huge market for milk, says Joel Gregoire, associate director of food and drink at Mintel. “Remember, dairy milk is extremely well penetrated in the market,” he says, noting 2019 Mintel research that revealed 89% of Canadians surveyed said they had purchased “any dairy milk” in the previous three months. “That said, the industry needs to adapt.”
Sylvain Charlebois, professor in food distribution and policy and senior director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, says the industry is definitely adapting—and it’s doing so by innovating. “As soon as you start recognizing that a market is more fragmented, it often leads to more innovation. That’s what we’re seeing right now, which is not a bad thing.” Indeed, there’s never been so much innovation in milk. New products touting attributes such as grass-fed, organic, high-protein, ultra filtered and A2 milk are showing up in fridges, often in interesting new flavours or with innovative packaging. “I think we really needed this influx of new ideas,” says Charlebois.
Higher protein is a big area of innovation, including the new “ultra filtered” milks such as Coca-Cola’s Fairlife, which entered the Canadian market last year, and Saputo’s Joyya, which launched in November 2018. The special filtering process is what boosts the protein. “We take fresh, Canadian milk and pass it through a series of specialized filters,” explains Philippe Duhamel, Saputo’s vice-president strategic business development, cheese & dairy. “This separates the milk components to concentrate the nutrients already found in milk, while also reducing the lactose.” Joyya claims to provide 75% more protein than regular milk, and Duhamel likes to say it’s “making dairy relevant again.”
Changing consumer preferences have boosted business at Guelph, Ont.-based Organic Meadow, as the company specializes in the organic, grass-fed, premium varieties many Canadians are now seeking. “Over the last 30 years, the dairy category has changed significantly—however, so, too, has the consumer. While we’ve seen declines in overall fluid milk consumption … organic and more premium offerings like grass-fed milk have been growing steadily,” says Michelle Schmidt, Organic Meadow’s marketing manager. Still, constant innovation is key for the company. Over the last two years Organic Meadow has launched more than a dozen new products, including organic shelf-stable milk boxes and cold brew coffee milk.
Brent Fewster, product category manager for meat, dairy & cheese at Ontario natural food chain Goodness Me!, agrees organic and grass-fed milks are showing strong growth, and adds that A2 milk, new to Canada, is currently making a splash at his store. “A2 milk is the most dramatic innovation, with Sheldon Creek Dairy leading the way [in Canada],” he says. “It is selling well and customers are very excited.”
Where regular milk typically comes from cows that produce both A1 and A2 types of beta-casein protein, A2 milk comes from cows that naturally produce just the A2 type; and many people who have trouble digesting regular milk—even lactose-free varieties—are finding they can easily digest A2. It was first developed by the a2 Milk Company in Australia, which is where Emily den Haan of Loretto, Ont.’s Sheldon Creek Dairy first learned about it while working abroad. She brought the idea back to her sister and parents (it’s a family-run business). “We thought this seemed pretty unique,” says Marianne Edward, den Haan’s sister and operations manager at Sheldon Creek, “so five years ago we decided to exclusively start breeding our herd to only A2 cows.”
Sheldon Creek’s A2 milk launched this year at select Ontario retailers such as Goodness Me!, Vince’s Market and The Healthy Butcher. Edward says she’s thrilled to be “bringing people back to milk … It’s so exciting when people call you to say, ‘I’m eating a bowl of cereal with milk right now and I just had to say thank you, I can drink milk again.’”