Dairy is fighting a war on several fronts to remain a key part of people's diets, but the industry has a good story to tell and should take the opportunity to promote milk as a superfood.
This was one of the take-away messages from the Australian Dairy Conference held earlier this year.
International Dairy Federation president Dr Judith Bryans, who is also chief executive of DairyUK, told the conference several United Nations and government policies, although not targeting dairy directly, were having an impact on the industry.
The UN had voted recently to reduce the harm of fats, sugar and salt in the diet, as it tried to combat the negative health impacts of poor diets. However, dairy was classed as a high-fat food.
While the industry had successfully had the UN motion amended to specify "excessive" consumption of fats, the policy had already resulted in Canada excluding dairy from its latest dietary guidelines.
This means the industry needs to lobby to show the nutritional value of dairy.
We need to change the perception of just being a commodity to being 'an apple a day keeps the doctor away'... a glass of milk a day can keep me from going into an old age home for a long period of time.Nutritionist Dr Anneline Padayachee
Dr Bryans said dairy was also under attack from plant-based alternatives.
"If you go into a supermarket in the UK, there are a lot of plant-based products that call themselves an alternative to dairy, even though nutritionally they are not equivalent," she said.
"They are not equivalent in taste or texture. But they trade on dairy names and dairy values."
Dr Bryans said this was confusing consumers, particularly millennials, who, according to one piece of research done in the UK, associated the word dairy with these alternative products, rather than real dairy products.
But Dairy Australia's human health and nutrition policy manager Melissa Cameron told the conference some of the perceptions around non-dairy alternatives were myths.
People perceived alternatives as a hot market segment that were outstripping the growth of dairy milk.
However, despite 201 alternatives to dairy on the market, total white milk (fresh and UHT) consumption in Australia continued to grow, alongside consumption of non-dairy alternatives.
Ms Cameron said rather than ditching dairy for alternatives, many consumers were buying both.
The truth was that only 5 per cent of consumers bought only alternatives, with 31 per cent buying both, 62 per cent buying dairy only and 2 per cent buying neither.
Buyers of non-dairy alternative were more likely to be city-based, female, and aged 18-34 with children at home.
Nutritionist Dr Anneline Padayachee told the conference changing demographics in Australia would influence the market.
Most of the population would soon be millennials or younger, while an increasing proportion was either first or second generation migrants, many of whom were lactose intolerant.
Alternatives to dairy were considered "functional thirst quenchers" - a liquid that was drinkable and had functional benefits, such as lowering cholesterol, boosting energy levels, slowing ageing or being lactose or gluten-free.
Plant-sourced drinks were seen as having health-promoting components such as dietary fibre, minerals, vitamins and antioxidants.
Dr Padayachee said alternatives were perceived to appeal to specific users, such as fitness fanatics, the "in kids", vegans and vegetarians.
Ms Cameron said although people perceived animal welfare and sustainability as the drivers for people to switch from dairy, Dairy Australia research revealed this applied to only a small group.
The key drivers were alternatives perceived to be healthier, taste and dairy intolerance.
Dr Bryans said dairy needed to battle to hold its position.
Part of the solution lay in accurate labelling- the industry needed to challenge dairy names and images being used in plant-based products.
Although plant-based dairy-alternative products could not be sold within the European Union and Britain under names including milk, butter and cheese, the industry had to keep fighting to have those regulations enforced.
"We have almost a religion and an ideology around plant-based (products)," she said.
"We have to remember it is a social world."
The dairy industry also needed to change the way it talked to consumers to connect more with them and to be useful to them.
"There's this perception that the plant-based beverages are healthy and more natural than dairy," Ms Cameron said.
"But when you look at the ingredients list on plain cow's milk - it comes out on top with one single, natural ingredient.
"Most commercially available alternatives contain a really long list of ingredients.
"And this is a real paradox because consumers often cite naturalness as an important criteria to them when choosing their foods.
"Milk contains eight essential nutrients, however, with a single ingredient are consumers able to recognise the nutritional value on offer compared with the long list of ingredients and added nutrients you see on alternatives?"
Ms Cameron said the cheap price of plain white milk might also be contributing to consumers being unaware of the "nutritional powerhouse on offer in milk".
Dr Padayachee said milk was seen as a cheap, everyday food.
"But the nutritional benefits (of dairy) are off the scale," she said.
"And that's what you have the ability to change consumer perception and take your product from just being $1 a litre to being a hell of a lot more valuable.
"You are a Porsche so stop positioning yourself as a Toyota."
Dr Padayachee said recent research showed dairy could play a key role in preventing muscle wasting in older people.
"We need to change the perception of just being a commodity to being 'an apple a day keeps the doctor away'.
"It's not just an apple a day that keeps the doctor away - a glass of milk a day can keep me from going into an old age home for a long period of time."