Nearly half of young people say they are intolerant to milk, according to a report published by the Food Standards Agency (FSA).
In its latest Food and You survey, which it conducts every two years, the FSA found that 46 per cent of people aged between 16 and 24 reported having an adverse reaction to cows' milk.
This compared with just eight per cent of people over the age of 75 who said they had a problem with milk.
"Of those who reported an adverse reaction or avoided certain foods, the most common foods that people reported having an adverse reaction to were cows’ milk and cows’ milk products," said the FSA in the report.
The results of the survey may cause concern for British dairy farmers, who have endured an extremely difficult couple of years, with prices collapsing to unsustainable levels and many milk producers being driven out of the industry.
Younger people, it seems, are turning in increasing numbers to alternatives like soya milk and almond milk - a far cry from the days when children had their daily intake of cows' milk provided free in the classroom at infants school.
A cause for concern
The threat from non-dairy alternatives has become such a concern that it was the subject of a report last year by the Dairy All Party Parliamentary Group.
"Despite the fact that dairy foods are present in most of this country’s fridges, dairy consumption in the UK is a concern for the future," said MPs on the committee in a report entitled Putting Dairy Back on the Daily Menu.
The MPs' findings were in line with those in the latest survey conducted by the FSA.
"Although consumers over 65 years of age remain loyal to milk and dairy products, younger generations do not always see dairy as being an essential part of their diet. Not only is this a real concern, as young consumers accordingly miss out on essential nutrients, but it is also bound to weaken long-term demand for dairy and jeopardise the future of the industry."
They said that encouraging young people to drink milk should be a priority: "Milk and dairy are paramount to children’s health, growth and wellbeing; industry, Government and all stakeholders should work with schools to circulate positive messages about dairy consumption and educate about the benefits of dairy," they said.
"This is not just a fad," said food marketing expert at Imperial College London, Professor David Hughes, during a recent farming industry conference.
The professor said the number of alternatives were growing to include dairy-free drinks that included brown rice and hemp.
"Plant based milk products have now been added to the Consumer Price Index in the UK. This is not just a fad product," he said.
The Office for National Statistics, which produces the Consumer Price Index, makes any additions to its basket of goods in February each year. This year it added milk alternatives because of their growth in demand.
"A number of new items have been introduced to represent specific markets where consumer spending is significant or growing and existing items in the baskets may not adequately represent price changes for such goods," said the ONS in explanation.
"For example, non-dairy milk drinks have been added reflecting the distinct and growing market for 'Free From' foods. The item is intended to capture price movements for milk-type drinks based on, for example, soya or almond," it said.
Investing in alternatives
David Hughes said that the trend to alternatives was so significant that major dairy companies were investing in the alternatives.
"Danone is investing $12.5 billion in non-dairy products," he said, referring to the company's acquisition of WhiteWave Foods Company.
In announcing the deal, Danone's chief executive, Emmanuel Faber, acknowledged the trend from milk to alternatives.
“This unique combination positions us better to address tomorrow’s consumer trends and represents a great opportunity to step change the ambition of our plan for an alimentation revolution and to accelerate our path towards strong sustainable and profitable growth by 2020."
However, the dairy industry has said the spread of fake news delivered by the media is a health risk to consumers.
Much of what consumers are exposed to concerning health by the media is 'biased, misrepresented facts, or completely fabricated,' dairy nutritionists said.
The Dairy Council said that all too often milk, cheese and yogurt are portrayed as unhealthy foods to be avoided, when they are in fact key elements of a healthy, balanced diet.