As members of the food production chain, dairy producers need to have a keen interest in what shapes consumer choices. Over the last half-century consumers have made some major changes in their eating habits based on health information about those foods. The report "Consumer-Driven Agriculture" released in June by the Economic Research Service shows this pattern very clearly.

For example, until the early 1950s nearly everyone ate eggs for breakfast. But, new health information - namely cholesterol - led egg consumption to drop from a per capita consumption of 390 to 233 in 1991. Today, after new health information about eggs was released consumption stands at 250 eggs per person. Likewise, concern about the amount of fat in foods precipitated a drop in whole milk consumption during the last 60 years. Fortunately for the dairy industry, that same concern led more people to drink low-fat milks.

According to the study, these shifts in food-consumption patterns can be linked - to some extent - to price and income levels. But that is just part of the equation. The growing scientific evidence linking health to diet is an increasingly important factor at work in shaping consumer decisions.

We've become a healthier, wealthier nation, and our nutrition needs have changed as a result. Nutrition research used to focus on the identification and prevention of diseases triggered by nutrient deficiencies. Today the research focuses on "the role of the diet in maintaining health and reducing the risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and cancer." In the early 1960s the first scientific link between heart disease and diet was released. And consumers became concerned with consuming too much fat, cholesterol and calories. The research caught their attention and they have been paying attention ever since.

Information is a powerful tool. That's why food manufacturers spend billions of dollars on advertising - a total of $26 billion in 2000.

And, that's why the research supported by checkoff dollars is so important. Realistically, individual dairies cannot scientifically explore the benefits of dairy products, then broadcast the results to consumers so they can use that information to shape their food choices. But by joining forces through the checkoff, dairy producers have been able to fund some scientific research that has put a new light on milk. For instance, low-fat dairy products' role in combating high blood pressure, conjugated linoleic acid's anti-cancer qualities and the fact that certain cheeses help prevent cavities. These are just a few of the health benefits of dairy products that checkoff dollars have helped discover and educate consumers about in the past few years.

"Consumers seek to maximize satisfaction through consumption of goods and services," says the report. And more and more consumers are using health information to shape those decisions. All the more reason why the dairy industry must continue to support research into the health benefits of dairy products and share that information with consumers. It's how you keep consumers informed, happy and buying your product.