By Stan Maddux
INDIANAPOLIS – The winner of this year’s Indianapolis 500 adding strawberry flavoring to his milk in Victory Circle has dairy farmers hopeful of turning the corner on slumping sales.
Helio Castroneves celebrated his fourth win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 31 by carrying on with the long tradition of racers first to cross the checkered flag drinking from a bottle of cold milk.
He finished about half of the bottle then broke from tradition by adding a packet of strawberry flavoring to the rest of the milk. He then gulped it down.
“It was a big surprise to all of us,” said Allie Rieth, agriculture affairs manager for the American Dairy Association Indiana, Inc.
To her knowledge, she said it was the first time flavoring was added to the milk of the winning driver.
Rieth said Castroneves, by having it both ways, may have opened the eyes of some consumers who previously didn’t know or consider the possibilities with milk. “We want people to understand that a gallon of white milk still has all of those nutritional benefits but people are looking for something new and exciting and different that maybe fits into their lifestyles a little better,” Rieth said.
Rieth said consumption of dairy products this year is up by about 7 percent from a year ago. However, the increase is largely from higher sales of cheese and butter.
Adding the strawberry flavoring came when the industry has been looking for ways for milk to be more appealing in a beverage market offering more choices than ever before.
She said it doesn’t hurt to have only the fourth driver to win the Indianapolis 500 four times to show the versatility of milk, one of the messages the industry has been trying to get across to consumers.
Rieth said it’s too early to know what impact Castroneves might have had on the industry but she pointed out sales increased in Japan after Takuma Sato took part in the tradition after his Indianapolis 500 victory in 2017.
At the very least, she said his actions should generate more ideas on growing demand for milk, “whether it’s developing fun and innovative packaging or partnering with those unique flavors to get kids excited about it.”
Rieth said Castroneves also could have primed the pump for more schools to consider allowing flavored milk in their lunch programs.
Only flavored skim milk was allowed in schools until 2017 when permission was given to offer students flavorings in milk with a 1 percent fat content.
Rieth said she doesn’t believe flavored 2 percent or whole milk will become an option in schools anytime soon because of a health conscious government in charge of making those decisions.
However, she said the wheels of government could turn faster with help from new research showing fat content in milk is not a contributor to weight gain in children.
In fact, she said a lot of research now shows the fat content is “actually part of a healthy diet and helps keep kids fueled up and stay active. Chocolate milk is an excellent recovery drink from workouts and sports for athletes,” she said.
Dairy farmer Jill Houin of Plymouth couldn’t be happier being part of the historic occasion. She handed the milk to Castroneves and was just inches away when he added the strawberry flavoring he arranged to have before the race if he won.
Castroneves said he wanted the rest of the milk to reflect the pink color of his car and team uniform.
“He celebrated traditionally and then he got to celebrate it the way he wanted to and I am humbled to be part of that whole day,” Houin said.
Houin is with Homestead Dairy, which was started by the grandparents of her husband, Brian. The farm has close to 5,000 head of dairy cattle producing milk for the Walmart processing plant in Fort Wayne.
Houin said the cows are milked by 36 robots along with traditional milking machines placed on the teets by hand. “Winners drink milk whatever flavor,” she said.