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Dare to Ditch Dairy?
No more cheese? No more chocolate? No more double-shot, extra hot, vanilla lattes? Yeah right...
Like soy, dairy provokes a reaction in almost everyone. Cold milk and cookies were a staple of our childhood, blossoming into a love affair with tea, coffee and cheese as adults. Milk may "taste great", and "keep our bones healthy", but when we stop to think about it properly — perhaps there’s a bit more to it.
Read on for all you need to know about dairy and why a little less cheese may go a long way.
1. For your health
As always, we aimed to form our own opinion based on scientific research. This was frustrating to say the least: we found bundles of conclusions that directly contradicted one another and took our time to untangle the threads into the below:
- Health-wise, lactose intolerance is the single biggest reason people choose to go dairy-free, and is a surprisingly common cause of digestive issues. Up to 75% of the world's population have issues digesting cow’s milk. That said, this figure varies from country to country and is significantly lower in populations that have been including cow’s milk in their diets for centuries.
- There is significant scientific evidence that links between milk consumption to higher rates of acne. While we might assume that this is due to the high fat content, it is actually skimmed milk that has the strongest correlation with acne. Instead, the link is thought to be due to the presence of hormones and bioactive chemicals.
- The science is subject to conflicts of interest: pro-dairy research was — generally — funded by the dairy industry and the more anti-dairy research often linked back to those with an interest in plant-based lifestyles. This is an interesting one as it is hard to accurately identify the role of bias in the conclusions.
In an effort to find out more, we turned to the NHS Eatwell Guide.
Dairy or dairy alternatives have a section all to themselves and we are advised not to cut dairy out of our diets without speaking to a GP or dietitian. It’s only natural for health-conscious consumers to listen to our government’s guidelines.
However, our problem with this is twofold:
- There is no obvious explanation as to why this is the case: links to scientific evidence would be ideal.
- What is the connection between industry and the NHS guidelines? In 2015, the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers and Dairy UK set up a secretariat (the Dairy APPG) that lobbies the government and policymakers with the focus solely on the needs of the dairy industry. The APPG works to ensure the government:
- Supports the development of a sustainable and profitable dairy industry
- Works to improve the image and marketing of dairy products to consumers.
This sounds fishy to us.
So what happens to a country’s dietary guidelines if the focus is on the science?
Canada’s new Food Guide — published in January of this year — are an example of this. While they do not remove milk entirely from the written guidelines, dairy has been removed from their Eat Well plate. Researched over a three year period, Canada’s guidelines are thorough, evidence-based and transparent. The policy makers openly disclose that they considered the science alongside the needs of its stakeholders. Therefore, the change in their stance on dairy — that went from a recommendation of 3-a-day to barely a mention — speaks volumes.
Additionally, regardless of the scientifically ambiguous role cow’s milk plays in preventing or promoting diseases like cancer, there is the reality of what it contains naturally (hormones, cholesterol and saturated fat) and unnaturally (antibiotics). Consumed in large quantities, none of these things are good for us.
Considering this, we are going with the recent shift across the Atlantic: if Canada are basing their dietary guidelines on science, and those guidelines are saying to consume less milk, we are listening to them.
Best for protein: soy milk & oat milk
Lowest fat: nut milks & oat milk
Lowest carb: nut milks
Best in hot drinks: Oatly Barista
Best in baking: soy
2. For the planet
Health isn’t the only reason to consider your dairy intake. As our global population grows, feeding everyone using the space we have is a very real and incredibly complex problem. It is generally agreed that our current systems of animal agriculture are having a devastating effect on our planet. Dairy is intrinsic to that. Dairy farming requires large amounts of energy, machinery, space, animal feed, water and medication. It also produces vast amounts of waste. When these factors are put into perspective and compared with more plant-forward diets, the difference is massive. Worldwide, more than 80% of available farmland is used for livestock but it produces just 18% of food calories and 37% of protein.
According to an EU report, dairy has negative effects on: landscape and habitat; biodiversity; soil and water; and air quality and greenhouse gases. In an effort to maximise output, small dairy farms have generally given way to larger holdings and this has huge implications for the environment. In the EU, 84% of all milk is produced by large-scale systems that comparatively cause the most damage to the planet. The smaller systems, which produce the least damage, only make 6% of the EU’s milk. But, an important caveat is that there is simply not enough land to rely solely on those; we'd have to drastically reduce our current levels of consumption.
Air quality & greenhouse gases
As Jeremy Coller, founder of exciting new consortium, FAIIR, puts it: “If cows were a country, it would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases.” Methane, ammonia, carbon dioxide and denitrification are all directly linked to the different stages of dairying and all of these have a significant impact on both air quality and global warming.
Methane is a natural by-product (yes, from cow burps) and while the emissions of a single cow may be negligible, on a global scale the problem it counts. It is hard to gauge accurately, though. While a large-scale study led by scientists at Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences is trying to do just this, global methane emissions accounted for 16% of global greenhouse gases in 2015 with livestock being held responsible for 31% of the total man-made emissions in the US. This is problematic as methane has a 'global warming potential' of 28 times that of carbon dioxide.
But carbon dioxide is still worth considering. If we examine the carbon footprint of different milks, the results are clearly not in dairy’s favour:
|Annual Carbon Footprint||Driving a petrol car|
|30g cheese (enough for two crackers) once a day||352 kg||899 miles|
|200 ml dairy milk, once a day||229 kg||585 miles|
|200 ml of rice milk once a day||86 kg||219 miles|
|1 bar of milk chocolate 1-2 times a week||80 kg||205 miles|
|200 ml of soy milk once a day||71 kg||182 miles|
|200 ml of oat milk once a day||65 kg||168 miles|
|200 ml of almond milk once a day||51kg||130 miles|
All in all, according to the BBC, by choosing plant-based milk over dairy milk, we could collectively be saving around 1 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in a single year.
Dairy farming is incredibly water-intensive too. It is thought that by switching from dairy milk to a plant-based alternative we could save up to 250 km³ of irrigation water each year. To put that in perspective, that’s the same amount that would be saved if everyone on earth stopped showering or bathing for a year. Raising a single beef cow over a 3-year period uses 3.1 million litres of water,. Dairy cows generally live between 4 and 7 years so could be responsible for using up to 7.2 million litres of water.
What about plant milks?
Feeding the planet, however we do it, is going to have an environmental impact using the current systems. Almonds require a lot of water to grow, and increased demand for almond milk is putting pressure on certain regions in California where the majority of almonds are grown. Rice milk is also not off the hook, as the bacteria in rice paddies produce significant amounts of methane, and the problems with soy are fairly well documented — specifically in terms of deforestation — but the fact is that between 70-75% of the world’s soy is actually used to feed animals.
If you normally have cow’s milk on your cereal and one dairy latte a day, you are generating around 458kg of carbon dioxide a year. Switch those for oat milk and you cut that back to 130kg. A small change makes a huge difference.
Best for the planet: oat milk
3. For the cows and their calves
Finally, while not a reason we’re going to dwell on for too long, we can’t skip mentioning the cows themselves.
Cows are inherently social animals and the few semi-wild ones live in complex hierarchical herds — based on the female’s social standing — of around 20 animals. A cow’s natural lifespan is between 18 and 22 years and calves suckle for 9-12 months before weaning. Female calves then stay with the mother’s herd, if “accepted”, while male calves join “bachelor” herds until finding their own.
Modern dairy cows live for between 4 and 7 years and, in order to produce milk, are artificially inseminated annually to produce calves. Once born, the calves have access to their mother’s post-birth milk (known as the colostrum) for up to 24 hours, before they are removed and raised separately. Calves are then fed a milk “replacement” — think baby formula — while their mums are milked in order for us to consume dairy products we are used to. Many suffer from mastitis or lameness due to the conditions they are kept in, conditions that worsen in the larger holdings (the ones we mentioned earlier that produce 84% of the EU’s total milk.)
When unable to produce more calves, at less than half their natural lifespan, the mothers are then sent to slaughterhouses and killed for low-grade beef. John Webster, Emeritus Professor of Animal Husbandry at Bristol University’s Clinical Veterinary Science Department says, “The dairy cow is exposed to more abnormal physiological demands than any other class of farm animal… [She is] a supreme example of an overworked mother”.
The calves themselves meet a variety of different fates and many are sold when just a few days old. Half the female calves will be raised for dairy, the other half for low-grade beef and slaughtered when 15-24 months old. The male calves fare a little less well: most are raised intensively for low-grade beef or veal but it is estimated that, in the UK, between 100,000 and 150,000 are shot shortly after birth as there is no ongoing use for them.
There are many facets to the cruelty of the dairy industry in Britain and, while British farmers often tell us our welfare standards are amongst the best in the world, these standards still allow the above.
Best for the cows: any plant-based milk
And the good news? There are so many alternatives
This is a biggy. If you want to cut back or remove dairy from your diet, it really has never been easier. While, nutritionally-speaking, none of the non-dairy milks are a like-for-like substitution, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing when you think of the whole package (the good things you get balanced with the not so good things). It also doesn’t mean that you can’t meet your nutritional needs — perhaps even more healthily — elsewhere.
We like to think of this as “crowding out” and we also think it’s a voyage of discovery. The ever-growing variety of non-dairy alternatives available means that you really can have alternatives to everything you currently eat, even if you choose not to replace every single one. And not just mediocre alternatives; great ones. It can take a bit of effort to find your perfect fit but in time you will and, when you do, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.
In terms of liquid milk, we love to use unsweetened, organic soy milk for cereal and baking — mainly for its high protein content — but choose oat for tea and coffee as it most closely mimics cow’s milk. Plant milks are generally way lower in calories and fat than cow’s milk and each has a slightly different nutritional profile; most are fortified with calcium and vitamin B12 too. Everyone has their own tastes, though, and with rice, hemp, oat, soy, almond, cashew and hazelnut milks on offer there’s bound to be one that you love.
The non-dairy yoghurt game is also going from strength to strength. Just like milk, there are new non-dairy yoghurts available all the time. According to Fact.MR, vegan yogurt sales increased by over 30,000 metric tons in 2018 compared with 2017. Some of our favourites are: Alpro, Koko’s plain yoghurt, everything by CoYo and Coconut Collaborative, and Tesco’s non-dairy version of Petit Filous are great for kids (and big kids) too.
And cheese… Cheese is generally the biggest stumbling block when cutting back on dairy but luckily dairy-free cheeses are becoming ever-more cheese-like in terms of taste, texture and meltability. Again, it’s worth persevering until you find one that you like, because invariably you will. Our favourite brands are: I am Nut OK, Kinda Co., Sheese and Violife (especially their grated version, which melts like a champ) but we also love some of the supermarkets’ own offerings… Sainsbury’s cranberry Wensleydale is pretty epic, as is Tesco’s jalapeno and chilli flavoured cheddar. You can even get plant-based versions of halloumi and feta now. And, if all that isn’t enough (and you happen to live in London) there’s now a completely dairy-free cheesemonger in Brixton: La Fauxmagerie. Generally-speaking, plant-based cheeses are way lower in fat, cholesterol-free and, while not as protein-rich, they are often fortified with the elusive vitamin B12.
Whether you’re choosing to examine your dairy intake for yourself, the environment, the cows themselves, or because (like us) you just think drinking the milk of another animal is a bit odd, we think there are some pretty compelling reasons to do so. Our top tip? Choose one thing at a time and find a great substitute: whether it’s the milk in your coffee (everywhere does non-dairy alternatives now), the milk in your fridge, the yoghurt with lunch or the cheese in your sandwich. While we do get that taste is super important, cutting dairy out, or cutting back, really is good for you and the planet and we really don’t think you have to compromise on taste anyway.
Health-wise, we’re following Canada’s lead and suggesting no more than one serving a day. Planet-wise, replacing that dairy milk with oat milk on your cereal every day would reduce your carbon footprint by 164 kg a year, and we think that’s worth considering.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on non-dairy alternatives. Why not let us know your favourites on our social media pages?