It would have been unimaginable 10 years ago: Unilever wants to get out of the polyunsaturated spreads business and sell-off brands worth $3 billion (€2.8 billion) in retail sales. The reason? Sales are falling – down 8% a year in the US and more in other markets – and there’s nothing Unilever can do to pull them back.
It’s a perfect case study of how powerless companies are in the face of a big trend – and the trends in this case are the rehabilitation of dairy fat and people’s preference for foods that are as natural as possible over foods that are like a chemistry set.
Regardless of any scientific arguments still raging about dairy fat – and there are many health professionals who cannot bring themselves to accept that the science has moved on – what’s more important is that consumers are making up their own minds.
Starting with the most health-aware consumers, the most-educated and the young, people are losing their fear of fat.
Armed with their phones, people are able to access more information about nutrition than ever before – and they are learning to be more discerning in the data sources they go to. And the result?
In 2016 in the US:
- sales of whole milk grew 4.6%
- sales of skim milk fell 12.6% (an acceleration of the 3% decline of 2015)
- Sales of butter increased by 8%.
- Noosa Australian-style yoghurt – a range launched in 2010 which offers only full-fat yoghurt – reached over $100 million (€94 million) in retail sales. Other “whole milk” yoghurt brands are proliferating and they are one of the few growth-spots in a US yoghurt market where growth has stalled.
- Full-fat milk sales grew by 9% in 2016 while low-fat milk sales slipped.
- demand for dairy fat has resulted in prices increasing from $3,000 a tonne in mid-2016 to up to $S5,000 a tonne now.
In Sweden statistics from The Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare show that Swedish butter consumption grew by almost 200% between 2005 and 2012 – while the incidence of heart attacks continued to fall. Swedes’ cardiovascular health improved despite eating more and more butter.
The old claim that increased butter consumption would increase the incidence of heart disease is defeated by reality.
The rehabilitation of fat represents the end of what Dr. David Ludwig of Harvard Medical School has called “the largest public health experiment in history”.
Low-fat dairy is not going to go away – people over 50 might be reluctant to give up the “low-fat-is-best beliefs” that they grew up with – but low-fat dairy’s share of the market – and particularly the premium market – will continue to decline as people rediscover the naturalness, pleasure and culinary usefulness of full-fat dairy.