If the headlines are to be believed, Gen-Z just doesn't like milk. At least not the kind that comes from cows. Younger consumers have embraced a plethora of plant-based alternatives — cashew, almond, soy, coconut, even potato. Oat milk memes abound. Gen-Z has been dubbed the “Not Milk” generation.

Recently, however, milk (from a cow!) seems to be experiencing a resurgence. Everyone on TikTok is drinking iced milk. Hailey Bieber donned a soaking wet “got milk?” t-shirt on a boat in Italy. Oat milk sales are lagging. This all begs the question, is cow's milk becoming cool again? Is plant milk’s glamour fading? We crunched the numbers and consulted dairy experts to see if cow’s milk passes the vibe check.

What does the dairy data say?

Declining dairy drinking is nothing new — fluid milk sales have been trending down since WWII. But it's not all bad news for Big Milk, especially when it comes to Gen-Z. “We've seen that rate of decline slowing more with younger people than the older generations,” said Ben Laine, Senior Dairy Analyst at Terrain, an agriculture economic research firm. “I don't know that it’s going to end the long-term trend of declining fluid milk consumption, but it is encouraging.”

Despite the long-term decline, cow’s milk still clearly dominates the market. Plant-based milk made up less than 15% of average weekly milk expenditures in 2023, according to data from Purdue University. Between 2018 and 2023, regular milk’s market share dropped by just over 3%, while plant-based milk gained less than 2%.

Notably, plant-based milk’s market share dipped by almost a percent between 2022 and 2023, while regular milk gained over 2%. This all suggests that cow’s milk might actually be regaining favor among consumers, especially younger ones.

Is milk cool again?

“I do see a resurgence in consuming traditional cow’s milk,” said Katey Davidson (@tasteofnutrition), a registered dietitian and certified personal trainer. She attributes this to its minimally processed nature. “It doesn’t contain any additional ingredients. You’re just getting cow’s milk.” Laine echoed this sentiment. “It's simple. I mean, it's one ingredient. To the degree that people want simplicity and wholesome, nutritious foods…that’s a benefit.”

Health trends are constantly in flux, and right now, “ultra-processed” is out, and “clean label” is in, according to Mintel’s 2024 global food and drink trends report. For consumers concerned about “ultra-processed” foods and long ingredient lists, cow's milk is looking pretty good.

From a nutritional standpoint, cow's milk packs a punch — it’s a natural source of various vitamins and minerals, contains eight to nine grams of protein per cup, and has no added sugar, Davidson noted.

Of course, everyone has unique needs and preferences to consider when choosing between cow’s milk or a plant-based alternative, Davidson added. But “if you prefer a product that is as minimally processed as possible, I’d argue cow’s milk is probably the best option.”

Speaking of preference, almond milk just doesn’t do it for a lot of people (myself included). As Davidson put it, “People don’t always enjoy the flavor of plant-based milk alternatives, or they miss the function of milk, such as its frothing abilities.” (Baristas can certainly speak to that point.) But, she added, “this is really individual and we could argue that people don’t like the taste of milk, so it goes both ways.”

Is plant milk’s glamor fading?

Plant milk is generally regarded as a healthier and more environmentally sustainable alternative to cow’s milk. But as it turns out, even plant milk has its problems. Almond milk is apparently worsening the drought in California, the cashew milk supply chain is riddled with ethical issues, and Oatly has faced a series of scandals.

Plant milk’s health halo has also taken a hit. There's been a lot of noise online about how oat milk spikes glucose levels and is packed with seed oils. So what does an actual dietitian think?

“Plant-based alternatives usually have many ingredients added to them, such as water, sugars, gums, emulsifiers, and flavors,” said Davidson. “They’re also quite processed since you have to go through many steps to transform a soybean or a cashew into a liquid product.” But, she added, “There are a lot of good plant-based milk alternatives on the market that have minimal ingredients, including being unflavored and sugar-free.” (This is true, but let's be honest, they're not the ones that taste good.)

Obviously, no product can be environmentally, ethically, and nutritionally perfect, and cow’s milk certainly has its issues. But for consumers who switched to plant milk mostly for health and sustainability reasons, these revelations may be enough to send them crawling back to the classic taste of cow's milk.

Got milk?

We can't talk about Big Milk without talking about marketing — “Got Milk?” is widely regarded as one of the most iconic ad campaigns of all time. But the days of milk-mustached celebrities in TV ads and magazine spreads are long gone. So how is Big Milk adapting to the changing market?

“There has been recognition in the industry over the last few years that we've got to update how we're doing things, and it's not going to be the same as it was in the 90s, it’s got to change with the times,” said Laine. “There has been a better, more personal effort in that regard.”

That personal effort looks like partnering with social media influencers, sponsoring Instagram posts from the likes of Hailey Bieber and Chrissy Teigan, and even promoting dairy farming on Minecraft. It’s not your grandma's “Got Milk?” ad.

Big Milks’ big changes go beyond sponcon. Newer brands are appealing to different consumers through more aggressive marketing of health-coded products such as grass-fed, organic, ultrafiltered, and lactose-free milk, Laine noted. Brands such as Fairlife and A2 have repackaged cow’s milk in modern streamlined containers and offer a wider range of products to meet a variety of taste and health preferences. These products also typically have a much longer shelf life than regular milk, which helps appeal to younger, single consumers.

“Over the last several years…other beverages kind of got better at doing the grab-and-go, single serving type thing,” said Laine. “But we're starting to see that change, and we’re seeing more options for packaging to fit into modern life.”

So, is Big Milk back?

It’s important to note that we don’t just drink milk, we consume it in many other (very delicious) forms. “When you look at the whole dairy picture, people are consuming more milk than they ever have, they're just eating it as cheese or yogurt or ice cream,” said Laine. “The total amount of milk still ends up growing, we're just changing how we consume it.” So Big Dairy was never really in danger.

But what about that classic glass of milk? “Fluid milk is always going to face its challenges,” said Laine. “But there are all sorts of new developments that are keeping it relevant as a beverage.” Big Milk is constantly finding new ways to stay in front of people and meet changing consumer demands, he added. “It's really just a matter of adapting, and the dairy industry has always done pretty well with that.”

Cow’s milk has its fair share of critics, but it also has a lot going for it. It’s simultaneously indulgent and nutritious, and it has a singular flavor — let's be real, a glass of unsweetened almond milk just doesn't hit the same with cookies. After years of oat and almond supremacy, it almost feels a little contrarian-cool to order whole milk cappuccinos and pour two percent over cereal. Plus, IMHO, it tastes really good.

So, is cow’s milk cool again? Well, let’s just say it’s not not cool.