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Back to July - August 2023
In a recent New York Times article, Kim Severson reported that milk sales are falling fast. Gen Z is buying 20 percent less milk than the national average, which fell from a high of 45 gallons per person annually in 1945 to 16 gallons in 2021. The milk industry wants to “get younger Americans on the milk train.”
Growing up, I drank raw milk from the Holstein out back in summertime, and during the rest of the year, milk was delivered in glass bottles left on our front steps. But it was also a thrilling time for convenience store foods: Twinkies, Devil Dogs, Sugar Pops, Hostess Snoballs, Swanson TV Dinners and Fizzies, candy tablets that created a sweet spritzer when dropped in a glass of water. It’s worth noting that Fizzies were marketed as “healthful,” touted as being enriched with vitamin C, free of added sugar, safe for children’s teeth, no risk of spoiling appetites, etc.
In prior decades, Edward Bernays, the father of modern publicity (and the nephew of Sigmund Freud), broke new ground by selling consumers not what they needed, but what they wanted. To open up the market for cigarettes to women, he rebranded them as “torches of freedom,” tying smoking to women’s suffrage. To sell more Ivory soap, he started national soap-carving competitions. To market bacon, Bernays invented bacon and eggs.
What does any of this have to do with today’s food trends? Marketers understand that consumers want something new—the new iPhone, the new AI search engine, the latest fashions, that new electric pickup truck. Put into a culinary context, consumers don’t want milk, they want a sports drink. They don’t want a shoulder of pork, they want a selection of brightly packaged barbecue sauces. We don’t want ground beef, we want the Impossible Burger. Earth is old news, so we have our sights on Mars. Elon Musk understands modern psychology.
For Gen Z, milk is boring, as is the entire produce aisle at the supermarket. It only gets truly fun when there is yet another brand of yogurt (oat milk), a new flavor of chips (gochujang) or a new single-source coffee from a far-flung locale.
Pretty soon we are going to find out if humans are endlessly adaptable or if we, on the other hand, are no different than the Minoans, the Hittites or the Olmecs. We are built for small communities, family affection, love, hard work and relevance, connecting to a personal universe that makes sense.
Food has become a paradise for those looking for entertainment rather than dinner; the company that made your entree also made its origin story, based on a TV show, a celebrity or an animated character. The thing about basic ingredients is that, when you get them home, you turn them into your stories. They are transformed into a birthday cake, a makeup dinner or an anniversary celebration.
Many in the media salute the Impossible Burger, buying into its tagline: “Join the Movement. Save the Planet.” Edward Bernays would be proud. Saving the planet by purchasing a processed meat substitute is akin to suggesting that women smoking cigarettes is a courageous act of personal freedom. It’s pure hokum.
Spend time in the produce aisle. Squeeze a melon, sniff the tomatoes, check out the garlic. Support your local butcher and fishmonger. Shop like a cook, not a consumer.
Got milk? I hope so.