October 8, 2016

Cheese, a Long-Time American Favorite

 |  By: Fran Howard

Despite the recent hype about rapidly increasing butter consumption, cheese remains the biggest driver of U.S. dairy consumption, and Americans love their cheese—on burgers, sandwiches, pizzas, pastas, and right out of the fridge.

According to USDA, Americans ate an additional 13 lbs. of dairy last year on a milk-equivalent (milkfat) basis. Average consumption per capita of dairy soared to 627.2 lbs., a 2.1% increase over 2014 levels. Not all of the gain was due to increases in cheese consumption, but most of it was, notes Mary Ledman, dairy economist with the Daily Dairy Report and president of Keough Ledman Associates Inc., Libertyville, Ill. Butter and ice cream consumption also rose.

The average American ate an additional pound of cheese in 2015 than in 2014, for a total of 35.3 lbs. in annual per-capita cheese consumption, according to USDA. At more than 321 million people, that additional pound of cheese equates to nearly 3.2 billion pounds of milk equivalent.

“All varieties of natural cheeses experienced gains in 2015,” Ledman notes. Americans devoured 11.3 lbs. of Mozzarella, 10.2 lbs. of Cheddar, 7.3 lbs. of processed cheeses, and 2.5 lbs. of cream and Neufchatel cheeses, according to USDA. Driven by a love for pizza, Americans favored Italian cheeses (14.5 lbs. per capita) by nearly half a pound over American cheese, a favorite on burgers, Ledman adds.

“Cheese consumption rose dramatically from 1980 to 2000. During that period, Americans’ love for cheese grew by 12 lbs., from 17.5 lbs. per person to 29.5 lbs. per person,” Ledman notes. “Since then, the rate of growth in cheese consumption has slowed; Americans added just 5.6 lbs. of cheese annually to their diet between 2000 and 2015.”

Love of butter also grows

Butter consumption also continues to improve, but it accounts for a much smaller share of the overall dairy consumption pie. Annual per-capita butter consumption increased from 4.5 lbs. in 2005 to 5.6 lbs. in 2015. “While every little pat helps, the gains in butter consumption are no where near as spectacular as the type of growth that cheese has experienced over past several decades,” says Ledman.

According to the Canadian Dairy Information Center, U.S. consumers ate less butter per capita than consumers in Canada, Iceland, Oceania, and the EU-28 but more than their counterparts in Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.

“The outlook for butter consumption is positive,” says Ledman. “McDonald’s replaced liquid margarine with butter in late 2015, and the full impact of the switch, coupled with similar moves by other companies, won’t be quantified until next year.”

Ice cream consumption also improved in 2015, following several years of back-to-back annual declines. Consumption of regular ice cream climbed 3% to 13.1 lbs. per person, but it is still nearly 3 lbs. less than it was in 2000, according to USDA.

“Fluid milk consumption, however, continues to disappoint,” says Ledman. At 155 lbs. per person, Americans drank 92 lbs. less milk—about 10.5 gallons—in 2015 than they did in 1975, USDA data show. “Fortunately, increased consumption of other dairy products has lifted annual dairy product consumption from 539 lbs. per person in 1975 to 627 lbs. per person in 2015,” Ledman adds.