Part 1 Cultural Role of Dairy: Reflections of a Product Anthro

May 31, 2023 | Dairy Industry, Product Anthropology

Part 1- Dairy products’ role within cultures and how culture affects dairy consumption patterns

As a product anthropologist, I have had the unique opportunity to study the cultural significance of various products, including dairy products.  Dairy products are a staple in many cultures and have been consumed for thousands of years.  In this article, Part 1, I will explore dairy products’ role within cultures, and how culture affects dairy consumption. In the next article, Part 2, I will explore the impact of packaging on dairy products, in addition to advertising, product management, and innovation in dairy.

What is product anthropology?

Product anthropology is a term I use to describe the study of how products and material culture affect human behavior, attitudes, and beliefs.  It examines the relationship between products and the people who use them and the social, cultural, and economic contexts in which products are used.  As a product anthropologist, I’ve looked at a wide range of products, from everyday household items to luxury goods, and analyzed how they shape human behavior and cultural practices.

The cultural significance of dairy products

The cultural significance of dairy products can be observed through various specific examples from different cultures worldwide.  Let’s explore a few notable instances:

  1. Hinduism religion in India and the Sacredness of Cows: In Hinduism, cows hold a revered status and are considered sacred animals.  They are seen as maternal figures,      representing nurturing and protection.  The cows’ milk is believed to possess healing properties and is used in religious rituals and ceremonies.  The cultural association between cows and dairy products in Hinduism emphasizes purity, divinity, and spiritual significance.

Also, in Indian culture, yogurt, known as “curd,” holds great importance in culinary practices.  It is a staple ingredient in various traditional dishes and plays a vital role in Indian cuisine.  For example, yogurt is a key component of dishes like raita (a yogurt-based side dish), lassi (a popular yogurt-based beverage), and numerous curries.  The cultural significance of yogurt in Indian cuisine showcases its versatility and contribution to flavor, texture, and nutritional value.

  1. Mediterranean Culture and Cheese: Cheese is deeply ingrained in the culinary traditions of Mediterranean cultures.  Countries such as Greece, Italy, France, and Spain have a rich history of cheese production and consumption.  Each      region has its own unique varieties and techniques, resulting in a wide range of flavors and textures.  In these cultures, cheese is often associated with craftsmanship, heritage,      and gastronomic excellence.  It is incorporated into many dishes, from classic Greek feta salads to French cheese platters.
  2. Mongolian Nomadic Culture and Dairy Products: The nomadic culture of Mongolia places significant importance on dairy products as a vital part of their diet and lifestyle.  Mongolian pastoralists rely on the milk of their livestock, particularly horses, yaks, sheep, and camels.  Fermented mare’s milk, known as “airag,” holds great cultural significance.  It is consumed as a source of sustenance      and used in traditional ceremonies and celebrations.  The cultural practices surrounding dairy products reflect the nomadic way of life and the reliance on livestock for      survival.
  3. Nordic Countries and Butter: Butter holds cultural significance in the Nordic countries, such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland.  These regions have a long history of butter production and consumption, with butter being a prominent ingredient in their cuisine.  In      Nordic culture, butter symbolizes prosperity, abundance, and traditional cooking methods.  It is used in traditional dishes like Swedish cinnamon buns, Norwegian lefse, and      Finnish butter cookies, showcasing its importance in culinary heritage.

These examples demonstrate how dairy products have shaped the cultural practices, traditions, and cuisines of specific societies worldwide.  The cultural significance of dairy products goes beyond mere sustenance, as they become symbols of identity, tradition, and values within cultures.

How culture affects dairy consumption patterns

Cultural attitudes and patterns significantly impact the quantity and frequency of dairy consumption around the world.  For instance, Western cultures tend to consume dairy products more regularly as part of their daily diets.  In contrast, Asian cultures often exhibit less dairy consumption, partially due to higher rates of lactose intolerance.

Let’s begin with Western cultures, such as the United States and most European countries, where dairy is a daily dietary staple.  For instance, in the United States, milk is a common beverage choice for breakfast, often consumed with cereal or used in cooking breakfast dishes.  Additionally, products such as cheese, yogurt, and butter are frequently consumed in various meals throughout the day in sandwiches, pasta, cheeseburgers, and traditional dishes like macaroni and cheese.  Similarly, in France, cheese is an essential part of meals and is often served as a separate course at the end of dinner.

On the other hand, in many Asian cultures, dairy consumption is less prevalent.  This lower frequency of consumption can be partially attributed to higher rates of lactose intolerance among these populations.  For example, in China, dairy products are not traditionally part of the diet, and lactose intolerance is widespread.  Instead, people often choose non-dairy alternatives such as soy milk, rice milk, or coconut milk.  There is a similar trend in Japan, where fish and soy products form a substantial part of the diet, and dairy products are less common.

A review published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition examines the prevalence of lactose intolerance among different ethnic groups.  It highlights the lower rates of lactose intolerance in Western populations compared to Asian populations.  The review sheds light on the cultural and biological factors influencing dairy consumption patterns in various regions.

Interestingly, India presents a unique case where despite high rates of lactose intolerance, dairy consumption remains integral to their culture due to religious and cultural beliefs.

The frequency and amount of dairy consumption are also influenced by factors such as geography, seasonal patterns, and economics.  For instance, in colder, northern countries like Finland and Sweden, milk and other dairy products are consumed regularly, possibly because dairy farming is a more feasible agricultural practice in these climates.  Additionally, dairy products provide high energy and fat content, which is beneficial in colder climates.

These examples illustrate how culture influences the amount and frequency of dairy consumption.  While dairy products are integral to daily dietary habits in Western cultures, Asian cultures have historically showcased reduced consumption and reliance on non-dairy alternatives.  Factors such as lactose intolerance and cultural food preferences play a significant role in shaping these consumption patterns.


In conclusion, understanding the cultural significance of dairy products and how they are consumed is paramount in the global dairy industry.  This awareness helps foster better product strategies, enabling dairy organizations to adapt their offerings to meet the diverse needs of their consumers globally.  We have seen how deeply rooted dairy products are in various cultures, from the sacred status of cows in India to the importance of butter in Nordic cuisines, and how these cultural factors influence consumption patterns.

However, this exploration merely scratches the surface of the cultural dynamics impacting the dairy industry.  There are still countless ways to further study and understand these cultural nuances, from the packaging of dairy products to the influence of advertising and innovation in dairy (as we will see in Part 2 of this article).  Within these cultural specifics, businesses can find untapped potential and growth opportunities.

As a product anthropologist, I understand the importance of studying these cultural aspects to provide valuable insights to drive growth and innovation in dairy organizations.  If you wish to delve deeper into these cultural influences and how they can benefit your dairy organization, I encourage you to contact us at Gray Global Consulting LLC.  Our team is well-equipped to provide the expertise you need to navigate the complexities of cultural factors affecting the dairy industry.

I look forward to helping you uncover insights about your products from a cultural perspective, potentially opening doors to new markets and greater success.

Remember, understanding culture is not just an academic pursuit but a strategic tool that can propel your business forward in today’s increasingly global marketplace.  

So, why wait?  Contact Gray Global Consulting LLC today and let us help you leverage the power of product anthropology for your dairy organization.


Brown, K.A., Venkateshmurthy, N.S., Potubariki, G. , et al. The role of dairy in healthy and sustainable food systems: community voices from India. BMC Public Health 22, 806 (2022).

Drake, S. L., Lopetcharat, K., & Drake, M. A. (2013).  Influence of dairy product consumption on perceptions and intake of milk and dairy foods.  Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 45(5), 503-508. doi:10.1016/j.jneb.2012.12.006

Swagerty Jr, D. L., Walling, A. D., & Klein, R. M. (2002). Lactose intolerance.  American Family Physician, 65(9), 1845-1850. URL: