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What does the ‘21st-century eater’ want from dairy?

Kelli Boylen for Progressive Dairy Published on 14 August 2020
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There have been many trends in the food industries in the past 20 years, but Mike Lee says at the end of the day, it is often emotions that help us decide how we eat. “We sell food one bite at a time,” he says. 

Lee is the co-founder and co-CEO of Alpha Food Labs, a food innovation strategy and product development firm, which also has two sister companies – The Future Market, which studies and imagines the future of food, and Food Tech Connect, a media site about all things food and technology. 



The “21st-century eater” demands foods that fulfill needs at the intersection of health, sustainability and experience, he says. “People want food that can do all three at the same time.”

They want to feel good about their food, which ties into the emotion of food choices. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, people sought comfort through food, going back to tried and true products like Campbell’s soups, bread and dairy.  

In 2018, Lee was focusing on the end of “one-size-fits-all” food. Well into the 1990s there were a few types of beer, a few brands of coffee and people drank water from their tap. Now, consumers want variety, trust and authenticity, and they are finding it with smaller companies that have something unique to offer. 

Lee and others who study the trends of the food industry are now focusing on how these consumers will impact the marketplace for decades to come and what food producers, processors, distributors, brands and retailers can do to meet their needs and thrive well into the future.


Lee talked of hedonism (when people require only pleasing themselves in making choices) and altruism (when creation of pleasure for all people is the best way to measure if an action is ethical) of food. Before COVID-19, 73% of millennial consumers said they are willing to pay more for food that is sustainably produced, but in the U.S., consumers tend to choose their food based on taste, costs, nutrition and convenience.

Lee says that no one leans back after a good meal and says, “That sure was sustainable.”

The idea of food being sustainable is altruistic and cerebral, but actual eating is visceral. Lee also points out that when there is economic instability, simply knowing you have enough food for your family is the goal. It is not until all basic human needs are met that they start seeking food that is healthful, sustainable and an experience. “Parents who truly care about the planet can’t always make food choices based on their beliefs.” He says they are often just looking to feed their family at a good price.

“We need to get better at combining both altruistic and hedonistic beliefs when it comes to food,” he says. “If we want to please consumers and grow as a brand, we must promote sustainability on a much larger scale.”

“You need to listen to the consumer but also educate them about sustainability,” he says. For example, educating the public about the fact that dairy producers are making the same amount of milk than in the past on a national level with fewer cows and using less water. 

“The public needs to understand what sustainable dairy means,” Lee says. “Dairy needs to be out there telling their stories about what they are doing to be sustainable.”


mike lee

Lee notes that for a farm to be sustainable and successful it is important to include better growing practices, better genetics and a better tasting product. 

The dairy industry also needs to be watching trends and figuring out what the consumer wants and then work toward being innovative based on that information. “Consumers rarely tell us what the next great product will be,” Lee says. But it can often be figured out by looking at the right information. He used the example that 15 years ago no one would have said they wanted an iPhone before they existed, but by focusing the innovation on what people were moving toward, a very successful product was the result.  

Currently, “animal-free milk” and “cheese” are being developed (in addition to the nut and soy milks already on the market), but it is not known when they will reach the consumer market. “I can already tell you this will be another form of competition,” he says.

A recent survey shows now that lab-grown “meat” is near the same cost as real beef; 66% of consumers say they will try “lab beef,” and 53% say they would consider replacing beef in their menu with it. 

“We need to understand what would be attractive about products like this to the consumer and make our promotion [of real dairy products] even stronger.”

Lee says dairy manufacturers usually focus on manufacturing efficiencies and product innovation, but there hasn’t been enough time spent talking with consumers and having a structured way to identify insights and behaviors. “Now is the time you need to consider reinvesting in your relationship with the consumer to get two-way feedback about the things that you are doing.”

Since the start of COVID-19, Americans are cooking at home more than they have in many years, and people who cook a lot tend to become more discerning with ingredients. “This is an audience that might not have been paying attention to your [dairy’s] message before. How are you going to reach them? How can we educate them about your product, and how they are going to use it?”

“A key going forward we need to learn as an industry is how to be more sophisticated about telling our story on any of the digital mediums – make it authentic, resonate and unique,” he says. 

Lee says COVID-19 has shown some of the cracks in the food system that have been there for a while but weren’t easily visible in good economic times. The current food system in the U.S. is designed for efficiency, with large amounts of food processed at a low cost. But when something goes wrong, such as a processing plant shutting down because of sick employees, it shows that a backup plan is needed for more resiliency. 

“This is an opportunity to shore up and make the food system stronger once we get back to business post-pandemic,” says Lee.  end mark

Mike Lee was among the presenters at the 2020 Dairy Experience Forum sponsored by the American Dairy Association of the Midwest. 

Kelli Boylen is a freelancer based in northeast Iowa. 

PHOTO 1: Getty Images.

PHOTO 2: Mike Lee presented at the 2020 Dairy Experience Forum. Courtesy photo.