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Milk consumption drops, cheese on the rise

Finland is still one of the world's highest per capita consumers of milk, but changes are afoot.

Nainen marketin maitohyllyllä.
Consumers are increasingly considering environmental and ethical issues at the grocery store. Image: Jarno Kuusinen / AOP

Consumption of fluid milk is declining steadily in Finland, but cheese consumption is on the rise, outpacing that in many other European countries. Meanwhile sales of oat-based and other non-dairy milk products are also strong, but no precise statistics are so far available.

According to the Dairy Nutrition Council, the average Finn consumed 110 litres of cow's milk last year. Various comparative studies suggest that this was just behind Ireland, with Belarus, Cyprus, New Zealand, Australia, Estonia, the UK and Canada also heavy consumers.

Dairy products have long been a dietary staple in Finland, where the climate is not conducive to producing non-animal-based protein sources. Most nuts, beans and high-protein grains besides oats are imported.

However dairy consumption trends have changed significantly in the past half-century as the country moved from an agrarian to an industrialised, urban society.

For instance, Finns traditionally consumed whole milk, with low-fat milk not appearing on the market until 1969 and fat-free in the 1980s.

Story continues after photo

Maitolinjastolla maitopurkit pakattiin ja tarkistettiin. Kuvassa pakkauskoneen täyttäjä Tellervo Kinnunen.
Milk packing at the Kainuu Dairy Cooperative in eastern Finland. Image: Kainuun Museo

Yoghurt began to appear in shops in the early 1960s, and sales of viili, a similar sour milk product, which has since lost popularity. Yoghurt consumption continued to grow until this past decade, when sales have dipped. There is a still a somewhat bewildering range of yoghurt products, including many low-lactose, lactose-free, probiotic and organic versions.

Functional and organic foods

Since the 1990s, there has been more public interest in the health impact of food, says Johanna Mäkelä, professor of food culture at the University of Helsinki. She says that milk was one of the first raw materials to be developed into so-called functional foods, such as dairy products with beneficial bacteria known as probiotics.

Consumers also began to be willing to pay a bit more for food products produced through organic methods. They are seen as better in terms of purity, environmental impact and animal welfare. Since then dairy shelves have filled with a wide array of certified organic products. According to the Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke), about a quarter of consumers buy such items on a weekly basis.

Mäkelä says that since the turn of the millennium, many new variations on traditional dairy products have appeared in shops, many of them disappearing after failing to win over customers.

Cheese sales rise tenfold

Meanwhile consumption of fluid milk has continued to decline, sharply from the mid-1950s to the early '60s and more moderately ever since.

Erja Mikkola, a senior specialist at Luke, says there are many reasons for this, beginning with urbanisation and a shrinking number of dairy farms. More recently it has been affected by various dietary trends and climate concerns, which have encouraged some people to turn away from milk.

Last year fluid dairy products (including buttermilk and flavoured milks) fell to an all-time low, about three percent less than in 2017. Luke says that milk production has dropped so far this year.

Meanwhile the popularity of cheese has risen tenfold since the 1950s.

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Nuori mies vertailee eri juustoja ruokakaupassa.
Cheese comes in many shapes and sizes. Image: Trond H. Trosdahl / Lehtikuva

Besides liquid milk, cheese is the most widely consumed dairy product in Finland. Statistically quark and cottage cheese are classed as cheeses. One driver of cheese consumption is the vogue for low-carbohydrate diets and focus on protein.

Mikkola says that the expanding range of cheese products has also stimulated overall sales.

However she does not foresee any drastic changes in consumption of dairy products, since they have long been a cornerstone of Finnish food culture.

Carbon calculations tricky

The climate debate has not yet had a clear impact on sales, says Mikkola, because widespread discussion of dairy products' carbon footprint has only begun recently.

"We'll have to see what happens in the next few years," she says.

Mikkola says it is clear, though, that a growing number of consumers are making food choices based on ecological reasons. They generally assume that plant-based drinks and yoghurt-like products have lower environmental impact than dairy products.

However she points out that calculating the carbon footprint of specific items is complex, and that so far there is little scientific research into oat-based drinks, for instance.

She does expect milk drinking to decline further in Finland, slowly but surely.

Mäkelä notes that 40 years ago, debates over food focused on its health effects, but that now the discussion has widened to include ethical, environmental and other issues. She points that this is emblematic of the overall trend in consumer choices, as shoppers take an ever-wider range of issues into consideration when picking products off the shelf.

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