Should I worry about drinking dairy milk?

The demand for dairy-free milk alternatives in the West is booming. One in three people in the UK is believed to buy dairy milk substitutes.

At the same time, worldwide dairy milk production is increasing, particularly in developing countries. So why are ever more people in the West opting for plant-based options? Is dairy really so scary? We asked people around the country why they are joining the so-called post-milk generation.

What's dairy milk's carbon footprint?

Almost half of 16–24-year-olds in the UK are concerned about the effects of our food system on the planet. Editor Cheryl Thomas says “I decided to swap to a vegan diet due to environmental concerns – fewer crops and less water are used to sustain a vegan diet than for dairy and meat products.” Research shows that a glass of dairy milk produces almost three times the greenhouse gas emissions of any non-dairy alternative.

In addition to emissions, “dairy operations can also be significant contributors to water pollution and soil degradation when manure and feed-crop production are poorly managed”, according to the World Wildlife Foundation.

But dairy milk alternatives are not without environmental concerns. Consider almond "milk" – the ‘water footprint’ of a single California almond averages 12 litres, and California produces up to 80 percent of the world’s almonds. What's more, to pollinate an acre of almond trees, you need two bee hives – and about a million hives are brought to California from around the U.S. for a short period every year. In 2014, the Pollinator Stewardship Council received reports from beekeepers of mass deaths among adult bees, as well as large numbers of dead, deformed and sick bee larvae. Eyewitnesses blamed this on a combination of pesticides.

Oats, rice and soybeans – all used in dairy milk alternatives – have a lower water footprint than almonds and don’t need any help from insects as they are wind or self-pollinated. The bacteria in rice paddy soil give off methane; it's much less than cows produce, but more than alternatives such as oats. Oat drinks have a slightly higher land use than the other plant alternatives, but less than cow's milk.

Are farming practices unfair on dairy cows?

“I cut back on milk for ethical reasons at first,” Irena Meier told us on Twitter. She said “after not having any for more than a year, I can’t stomach it anymore”. Over half of 16–24-year-olds consider the food system to be 'unfair' on farm animals. The number of vegans in the UK reached 3.5 million in 2018. Many state animal welfare as a key reason for the change.

Dr Jude Capper, a livestock sustainability consultant, says “Excellent animal welfare should be the cornerstone of every livestock production system, including the non-tangible and difficult-to-measure emotional side of animal welfare.” She makes the point that the practice of allowing cows access to barns can be seen as a positive. “While cattle often exhibit frolicking behaviours that could be interpreted as 'happy' when first turned out to pasture, they also queue to come into the shed when it's cold, wet or windy.”

There are many controversial aspects to farming, such as mother and calf separation, slaughter of male calves and pregnancy by insemination. “No system of farming is perfect, and there are always improvements to be made", says Sam Packer, Policy Officer at The Soil Association. "We are at the forefront of this, Soil Association’s animal welfare standards are the highest in the UK, and we are always working with farmers, researchers and policy makers to ensure all farm animals have a good life.”

Are dairy milk alternatives lower calorie?

"Plant drinks contain fewer calories", @Wilderness_Days told us on Twitter.

It's true that most plant-based alternatives are lower in calories than whole dairy milk, but skimmed and semi-skimmed milks can be equally low calorie. But dairy milk contains an impressive 8g of protein per 225ml, which helps keep us fuller for longer and gives us energy. With the exception of soy, plant-based drinks contain less protein than dairy. (The NHS recommends eating 45g of protein per day for women and 55.5g for men.)

According to the British Nutrition Foundation, a proportion of adults and teenagers (especially girls) have low intakes of some vitamins and minerals, in particular vitamin A, iron, calcium, zinc and iodine. All of these are found in dairy milk.

“Dairy is very nutritious; swapping to plant-based products is not often like-for-like. It may still be important to get nutrients such as calcium, B vitamins and iodine, another way", says nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed. “The trouble with many alternatives to milk is that fortification is not standardised, so you might not get the nutrients you expect. Some products contain added calcium and B vitamins, but iodine is often missing. Iodine is involved in brain development, and research suggests it plays a role in IQ. As milk is our main source of iodine in the UK, look for products that are fortified with this vital mineral if you or your child doesn’t drink milk.”

Nutritionist Renee Mcgregor doesn’t want you to give up on dairy milk just yet, especially if you exercise regularly. “It’s important to be aware that nutritionally and from a recovery point of view, dairy-free ‘milks’ do not stack up. Milk is ideal as it has the right carbohydrate-to-protein ratio to encourage muscle recovery. It also has the best composition, with easily digestible carbohydrates and protein, making uptake by the muscle more efficient. Dairy foods also contain calcium and this has been demonstrated to have beneficial effects on body composition, helping you to maintain a higher percentage of lean muscle mass."

What if you're lactose intolerant or have a milk allergy?

Blogger Ruth Cartwright says she gave up dairy milk when she discovered she was lactose intolerant. 65 per cent of the worldwide population has a reduced ability to digest lactose, a type of sugar found in milk. This rises to 90 percent of East Asian adults and drops to 5 percent of people from Northern Europe.

Lactose intolerance usually exhibits within a few hours of eating or drinking, with symptoms such as wind, bloating, cramps, feeling sick and diarrhoea. Severity depends on the individual and how much lactose has been consumed. Some people who are lactose-intolerant may still be able to tolerate a small glass of milk, while others won't be able to drink even a tiny bit in their tea or coffee. Intolerance is not an allergy and can develop at any age.

The NHS says that a milk allergy affects one in 50 infants and young children, but rarely continues after one year and most children will have outgrown it after three. But to some, a cow’s milk allergy is lifelong and severe. If you have an allergy to milk you must avoid it and find an alternative source of nutrients, such as protein and calcium.

If you're concerned that dietary restrictions are putting you at risk of complications, consult a dietitian.

Are there hormones in dairy milk?

"I found out (dairy milk) had hormones in", Stephanie Barnes told us on Twitter.

Although it's true that growth hormones are used for cattle in some countries, they are not used for livestock in the EU.

Most milk comes from pregnant cows, so dairy does contain natural hormones from the mother. Indeed, one way to check if a cow is pregnant is to test her milk. But “hormones that are bovine-specific do not have biological effects in other species", says Dr Jude Capper. “We lack the appropriate receptors for the hormone to bind to – we don’t have a cellular 'lock' that the hormone 'key' will fit.

However, antibiotics are a consideration. “Where appropriate, antibiotics are used in livestock to prevent and treat disease, thus improving animal welfare and ensuring a safe food supply", Capper continues. “Concern exists regarding the overuse of antibiotics within veterinary and medical sectors. As antimicrobial resistance becomes a significant global issue, dairy producers, animal health industries and researchers worldwide are working to eliminate medically important antibiotics from livestock production, while seeking alternative treatments to ensure that animal health and welfare is maintained.”

Dairy labelled as 'organic' has not been sourced from animals treated with antibiotics. Any cattle on an organic farm that require antibiotics, when they are actually sick and prescribed by a vet, will not have their milk sold as 'organic'. The Soil Association says “Organic cows are fed a diet free from artificial additives, chemicals and genetically modified ingredients, and the routine use of antibiotics in the organic system is banned.”

While milk alternatives don’t contain antibiotics, they may contain other additives. Flavourings, thickeners, carrageenan, vegetable oils and gums can be found in non-dairy drinks, and as a result they are classed as ultra-processed foods. Soya contains phytoestrogens, oestrogen-like compounds. Clinical studies have shown both the risks and benefits of eating phytoestrogens, but research is inconclusive.

Is it natural to drink milk from another species?

"No other animal drinks milk from another species", says personal trainer Mark Sleight.

More than 10,000 years ago, hardly anyone drank dairy milk. The first to give it a go were early farmers in Western Europe, who domesticated animals, including cows.

Back then, humans couldn’t digest the lactose in dairy. Babies have the lactose enzyme to allow them to digest their mother’s milk, but traditionally this enzyme stops being produced in adulthood. Evolution has allowed some humans, particularly in Northern Europe, to keep it for life – meaning we can digest milk.

No other mammals drink milk to adulthood. But neither do they drink nut and grain juices fortified with vitamins and minerals. As many of us have evolved to be able to process lactose, some argue that drinking milk is now ‘natural’, as it has altered our DNA.

The alternative options at a glance

If you don't want dairy milk, then mylk, malk, m*lk and more are available. Soy, rice, hemp, hazelnut, coconut and the popular almond and oat milks can be found on shelves.

While soy drinks are closest to dairy in terms of protein, it contains fewer carbohydrates than oat, coconut, rice and almond alternatives. Coconut milk usually contains more saturtated fat than the rest.

The vitamin and mineral content differs between brands of non-dairy substitutes as well as between types. Charlotte Stirling-Reed recommends looking for a drink that is fortified with iodine, as this is a tricky mineral to get from diet. Note that organic drinks are not fortified.

Oat drinks are often considered a gateway to the alternative-milk scene because of their mild, creamy taste, but Stirling-Reed suggests trying a few to see what you like. “If no one drinks it, it won’t be any use, even if you have chosen the most nutritionally viable alternative”, she says.

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