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What type of milk is best for you and the environment?
Published on: Saturday, June 03, 2023
By: ETX Daily Up, FMT
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Cow’s milk may still be the standard in many regions, but a growing number of consumers are looking at plant-based alternatives. (Envato Elements pic)
PARIS: In a bowl of cereal, in pancake batter, or as a finishing touch to creamy scrambled eggs… in 2021, global milk consumption was estimated at 908 billion litres, with extreme national variations for average consumption.

In 2001, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation declared June 1 as World Milk Day. While the event is designed to bring attention to the dairy sector, consumers’ views of milk are undergoing a shift as many look to alternatives, whether for personal or health-related reasons or environmental concerns.

Here’s everything you need to know to choose the beverage that suits your taste – and your values.

What do people mean when they talk about milk?

While within the European Union the word “milk” is meant to be used only for “an animal product … exclusively the normal mammary secretion obtained from one or more milkings”, other jurisdictions, including the United States, allow it to be used for plant-based products, although it advises companies to make its plant origin clear on labels.

In everyday language, it’s common to hear consumers refer to almond milk or oat milk.

What’s the most environmentally friendly milk?

There are numerous types of plant-based beverages positioned as alternatives to cow’s milk – including soy, almond, rice, hazelnut, oat, and pea – each with pros and cons, depending on whether you’re looking at water or land use, or emissions.

If one were to combine the world’s 15 biggest meat and dairy companies, it would form the 10th-largest greenhouse-gas-emitting nation, according to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the Changing Markets Foundation.

At the other end of the scale, oat milk produces 80% fewer greenhouse-gas emissions than animal-based dairy products, while water requirement is alo lower compared with other alternatives.

Indeed, oat milk uses only 18% of the water required for rice milk, and 13% of that needed for almond milk.

However, in 2018, the American lobby Environmental Working Group indicated in a report that glyphosate (a type of herbicide) residue was found in numerous oat-based products, such as cereal and energy bars.

Meanwhile, a study this year from Mamavation and Environmental Health News found broad-spectrum herbicide or some type of heavy metal in two out of 13 oat milk samples.

Study shows oat milk produces 80% fewer greenhouse-gas emissions than animal-based dairy products. (Envato Elements pic)

The authors also point out that packaging, which also leaves an environmental impact, should be taken into consideration. This is perhaps a reason for consumers to make their own nut- or oat-based beverage at home.

Can cow’s milk be cruelty-free?

Animal rights groups such as Peta suggest that producing cows’ milk causes suffering and, in response, some farmers have begun modifying their processes in recent years.

As such, if you have to drink cow’s milk, look for those from small dairy farms, or labels with the words “animal welfare approved” or “humane certified.”

What milk is best from a nutritional perspective?

There are several nuances to this question too, mainly because the benefits differ depending on whether you’re talking about cow’s or goat’s milk, or whether you’re talking about plant-based beverages.

Given that the fat content differs slightly between whole, semi-skimmed, and skimmed milks, nutritionists generally recommend the semi-skimmed variety.

While this consumption should be limited because of saturated fatty acids, it should be noted that this milk contains omega 9, which is also found in olive oil.

Goat’s milk contains the same lactose and fat content as cow’s milk, but may nevertheless be preferred by some consumers owing to digestibility.

While soy milk and other soy-based products have been called into question as potential endocrine disruptors, soy has largely been found to have a “beneficial or neutral effect on various health conditions”, as noted by Harvard’s School of Public Health.

Another accusation levelled at plant-based milks is that they contain a high proportion of sugar. As such, it’s important for the consumer to read labels thoroughly to be aware of what has been added to these beverages – not just sugars, but also fillers and preservatives.

Lastly, do remember that plant-based beverages are not a substitute for breast milk or formula.

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