Leading London nutritionist, presenter and author Yvonne Bishop-Weston says, “The world’s reliance on cow’s milk seems somewhat illogical through modern eyes. In the past, a bit of diarrhoea and bloating was a small price to pay when dealing with the serious health concerns of malnutrition and rickets. Ironically, we still have malnutrition but it’s now usually more likely a lack of vitamins, minerals, essential fats, antioxidants and fibre rather than a basic lack of calories that concerns nutritional therapists.”
Culturally, milk drinking is ingrained in our culture. On our cereal, in our tea and coffee, in various concoctions that we cook for dinner from pancakes and baking to cheesy sauces and custard, milk has been naturalised into our lives.
The justification for Public Health England including dairy on the official NHS ‘Eatwell Plate’ is as a dietary source of calcium. “This is a shame as calcium-rich plant based foods often come free with a host of other useful nutrients rather than just mainly, calorific, saturated fat” says Yvonne.
Now of course we have a wide selection of ‘non-dairy alternative to milk drinks’ – plant milk alternatives for people that wish to enjoy milk into adulthood when many humans struggle to properly digest even human milk.
There’s now so many different types of plant milks it’s very unlikely there’s not at least one type, and one variety of that type, that will fulfil our everyday culinary needs. The choice seems almost endless, there’s hemp milk, cashew nut milk, pea milk, macadamia milk, coconut milk, flax milk etc.
As a nation, we seem liberated by this – in a press release from Ocado.com for World Vegan Day it was reported sales of Almond milk alone were up 2,343%, The Grocer Magazine reported Alpro Sales were up £23m whilst sales of Fresh Cow’s milk were down by £54m.
It’s not just the UK, Worldwide BCC research predict sales of plant milks will be over $10Billion within 2 years with 50% of sales in the Asia/Pacific market.
Are the naysayers right to be worried about consumers turning away from milk? Will we see a calcium deficiency around the world as humans turn their backs on Dairy? Interestingly whilst Sweden is one of the top consumers of cow’s milk per person that doesn’t stop them having to spend Billions of Kronor on treating Osteoporosis, or in North America. It’s complicated.
Yes, cow’s milk is natural food, – for a baby calf. Like most animals, it’s rare to see rare to see consumption of milk into adulthood, even from their own species.
For people who argue dairy/cow’s milk is a natural food for humans it’s suggested they consider these three questions:
Human babies need a different ratio of fats/essential/fats/sugars/proteins/vitamins/minerals to thrive, basic cow’s milk is not suitable for human babies. That’s why it has to be completely re-engineered for use as infant milk formula. Fresh cow’s milk is not legal (for human babies) it’s not chemically right (for human babies) it’s not ethically right (a dairy cow’s life is worse than beef cow, worked into crippled exhaustion and then turned into burgers or dogfood).
The World Health Organization recommends Humans exclusively breastfeeding babies for six months and continue to breastfeed in addition to other food for at least two years. In some cultures it’s usual for children to be breastfed for three to five years or even longer.
In the UK, we do very badly at continuing to breastfeed after 6 months, the worst in Europe.
La Leche League can provide information on breast milk banks for those mothers who find it difficult to produce enough of their own natural human milk https://www.laleche.org.uk
There are many good reasons to drink alternatives to cow’s milk (Environment, Ethics, Health) but extra calcium is necessarily not one of the top reasons.
The food industry is beginning to the public’s concerns over the environment, ethics and the impact of the dairy industry. McDonalds UK ran a series of adverts suggesting how natural and organic their milk is produced. However, there’s no escaping the facts. Cow’s make more methane, other noxious gases and pooh than milk and it seems a very inefficient way of using the planet’s precious food and energy resources when you could just make milk from nuts, seeds and grains.
Added to that the animal cruelty involved in the dairy industry and the dilemma of what to do with the baby calf (a necessary by-product of a cow getting pregnant to stimulate lactation) and it’s plain to see why many people may see the innate logic in moving to a dairy-free vegan diet.
With the explosion of social media platforms amateur filmmakers can get their documentaries on uncensored undercover exposés to millions of people within hours. Global companies no longer have a stranglehold on what we see and hear if we have the motivation to seek it out.
A number of studies have reviewed the nutritional impact of consumption of non-dairy alternatives on children often commenting on Vitamin D levels (“it is fortunate that few of the young children assessed by Lee and colleagues were deficient in vitamin D regardless of the beverages consumed”) “which is an odd statement considering modern milk has negligible only trace amounts of vitamin D” says Yvonne.
The (UK) Dairy Council on www.milk.co.uk concur “There is very little vitamin D in cow’s milk and in fact only trace amounts and in the UK cow’s milk is not fortified with vitamin D.”
In the Journal of Pediatrics Gastroenterology and Nutrition 2016 Aug 18. Singal, Baker et al also review dairy milk’s protein content compared with plant milk “commonly available non-dairy beverages are derived from almond, cashew, coconut, hazelnut, hemp, oat, rice, and soy. Cow’s milk has higher protein content and quality compared to most of these products. It was noted that most of these beverages are fortified with calcium and vitamin D. However, the bioavailability of these substances after fortification is not available.”
Yvonne says “Firstly Soy milk has comparative levels of protein to cow’s milk, secondly if you need extra protein you are far better getting your protein from a food source such as hemp seed that comes free with omega 3 essential fats rather than saturated fats. If you need extra calcium use tahini made from sesame seeds if you need extra vitamin D seek out more sunshine in your life or vitamin D-rich mushrooms exposed to ultraviolet light (available in Tescos)”
“Plant milks may not always be the best source of calcium so Vegans should seek out additional, other vegan foods more reliably rich in calcium” says Yvonne – see WHFoods to compare calcium rich foods
Matt Wright author of ‘The Genius of Ordinary Food’ checkyourfood.com says:
“Whilst we have a very good idea of the bioavailability, health benefits and sources of the minerals occurring naturally in plants, we have very little idea of the availability, health benefits and sources of the minerals ‘added’ to plant milks for the purposes of fortification. The organic versions of these milks are generally free of any additives and represent a ‘natural’ and ‘balanced’ source of nutrients.”
Yvonne predicts that it may not be long before we see plant based super-milks for sale that are nutritionally far superior to anything you could hope to get from a cow, even cows allowed out in the sunshine, fed fresh omega 3 rich herbs, flax and hemp and treated for mastitis by a Naturopathic vet.
Probably the most important nutrient found in cow’s milk but not found unconsciously and ubiquitously in a vegan diet is vitamin B12. B 12 has been found in tempeh and seaweed but not reliably and frequently enough to make a claim on a packet. Scientists have recently found that by allowing bacteria into algae growth vitamin B12 is produced and the algae flourishes.
It seems there is a synergistic symbiotic dependence between bacteria and algae. Bacteria is also getting scientists very excited studying the relationship between human digestive health and optimum cognitive function / optimum human immune system function.
As algae is also a source of omega 3 EPA and DHA essential fats and calcium it may not be long before algae-derived ingredients are a regular extra ingredient of plant-based super-milks that are best, not just for adults, but maybe even suitable for human babies as well.
Meanwhile enjoy plant milks with the peace of mind that you are helping the environment, your health and the lives of many animals.