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Now onto this week's newsletter edition on milk: a crucial ingredient in some of America's favorite foods. Ice cream, cookies, cheese, butter, yogurt, desserts are just a few goodies that use this creamy and delicious ingredient.
Humans love milk so much that we are the only species that drinks another species' milk and continues drinking it after infancy. We pair a glass of milk with mom's famous chocolate chip cookies, hold a variety of world records for drinking milk the fastest or blowing the most bubbles in milk in one breath, and dedicate February 11th to National "Don't Cry Over Spilled Milk" day.
Milk makes such a statement that out of the 28 states that have an official drink, 21 of them chose milk, and it is the only beverage other than water that senators are allowed to drink on the floor. You might be able to tell that we really aren't udderlivering on the fun facts for this week's edition.
At a Glance
Last year, the U.S. produced 223 billion pounds of milk, with the global milk production increasing every year with no signs of slowing down. But this does hide some of actual milk consumption and interest for younger individuals (apparently it is more popular among older folk) — U.S. milk consumption has fallen over the last few decades. On average, Americans drink about 146 pounds of milk a year, which is down 26% from 2000 according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service.
The decline in milk consumption is due to many different reasons, including environmental and animal welfare concerns, as well as the fact that we're starting to realize that milk really isn't as great as it is marketed to be.
Out of all the different types of milks, cows' milk has the greatest environmental impact. It requires 9 times as much land (⅔ of the agricultural land in the U.S. is used to raise animals for food or to grow grain to feed them) and has 3x as much carbon emission as any other non-dairy milk alternative.
Cattle are responsible for the 62% of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the food industry and emit 14% of global greenhouse gases. This is because cows release methane, a gas that is 30x more harmful than carbon dioxide. Cow manure also degrades local waterways. In California, the state with the most dairy farms, manure has poisoned hundreds of square miles of groundwater, rivers, and streams.
Unfortunately, there is a large toll on animal welfare when it comes to producing milk. Out of over 40,000 dairy farms across the United States, only 17,000 of them are “ethical”. On any given day, there are 9 million cows on dairy farms, 12 million fewer than in 1950. However, milk production has increased significantly since 1950 (116 billion pounds per year to 223 billion pounds in 2020). On the factory farms, cows and their calves are treated extremely poorly:
Cows typically have a lifespan of 20 years. American dairy cows have a lifespan of 4-5 years.
Dairy cows live in cramped spaces with little place to roam.
Almost all calves are separated from their moms within hours or days of birth, allowing farmers to sell the additional milk that would've been for the calf.
Male calves are sent to be chained in tiny stalls for 3-18 weeks and are raised for veal. They are fed milk substitutes that are designed to make them gain 2-3 pounds per day.
Female cows are artificially inseminated shortly after their first birthdays. After giving birth (gestation period is ~9 months), they lactate for 10 months, are inseminated again, etc.
In order to produce more milk, cows are injected with hormones and antibiotics. They are also fed unnatural, high protein diets like chicken feathers or fish because their natural grass diet doesn't give them the right nutrients they need to produce more milk.
Unproductive cows and male babies are sent to the slaughterhouse. Cows are "used until broken, and then fixed or tossed."
With all the environmental and animal costs that come with milk, there has to be a good reason for why humans crave milk so much.
Milk plays a crucial role for humans when we are born, containing many nutritious ingredients, including a distinct sugar called lactose. As a baby, we have an enzyme called lactase that can digest the lactose in a mother’s milk; however, for many people this enzyme stops being produced after early childhood. This is the same for most other adult mammals, such as adult cows, cats and dogs.
Yet, around 10,000 years ago, early farmers began to domesticate animals like cows, leading some humans to maintain their lactase enzymes through adulthood. This trait persisted in evolution, making it extremely common for European descendants to become “lactase persistent,” while many African, South American and Asian descendants maintained lactose intolerance. This means around 30% of the world’s population is able to digest milk.
This begs the question, if 70% of the world can’t digest milk well, what are the benefits from milk?
Cow’s milk contains a mix of protein, calcium, vitamins A and D, fat, whey, casein, magnesium, and more — all leading to help bone development, muscle function, and maintaining blood pressure when you are a child. But it’s conflicting when it comes to being beneficial for adults, with some studies finding that it could actually be more harmful than good.
Here are some findings:
Milk doesn’t decrease the risk of bone fractures.
There is a small concern with the amount of oestrogen found in milk.
Drinking milk could increase the potential risk of heart disease.
For individuals that might be allergic or lactose intolerant to dairy, it is advised that you consider alternatives if you want to drink milk, but there does not seem to be too much benefit that other ingredients could provide that milk alone can do for you. We do want to point out that most of these fears come with a large consumption of milk, so drinking a moderate level of cow’s milk shouldn’t be a huge concern.
Ingredients to Watch Out For
If you read our piece on honey, you might recall that honey is the third most faked food, after milk and olive oil. Food fraud occurs across many products, including milk. Note that when we talk about "fake milk" we are not referring to plant based milk.
Goat and sheep milk is a common alternative to cow's milk, and manufacturers intentionally put cows milk in these products (it's more lucrative) or or unintentionally (cross contamination). Some other common dairy frauds include:
Dilution of whole milk with water.
Mixing heat treated milk with fresh milk and selling it as fresh.
Adding chemicals to extend the shelf life.
Including cheap materials to increase thickness and maintain the right composition such as milk powder, rice flour, salt, starch, animal fat, vegetable oil.
Even though the price of milk has remained steady over the past several years, Americans aren't buying as much milk as they used to. Since 1975, milk consumption per capita has dropped around 40%. With the rise of the pandemic and panic shopping for staples and items with longer shelf lives, there's been a huge demand for non dairy milk (which as an industry has grown over 61% since 2012). The rise of "clean eating" which encompasses plant based, unprocessed foods has discouraged people from consuming milk.
Joaquin Phoenix dedicated an entire Oscars speech to its supposed cruelty. The party line in women’s media is that giving up dairy will clear your acne, make you less bloated and bestow upon you the glow and energy of Gwyneth Paltrow.
COVID-19 has also put a major strain on the milk supply chain, causing disruptions that have made it difficult for farmers to get their milk to market. With restaurants and schools closing, there's been not only a decrease in demand, but a huge shift from wholesale to grocery store, creating logistical and packaging issues. With there being difficulty to find truck drivers as well to transport milk, farmers have been forced to dump thousands of gallons of milk down the drain.
A Non Dairy Future
The popular "Got Milk?" will now turn into "Got Plants?". With the rise of wellness trends, people have swarmed to finding plant based alternatives: oat, soy, rice, almond, hazelnut, coconut, tiger nut, walnut, cashew, etc. 41% of households buy milk alternatives and the plant based milk industry is worth almost $5 billion, making up 40% of the plant based market.
Only a decade ago, the sole milk alternative one could find was soy milk. For anything else people had to go to the health aisle of the grocery store where there were cartons of rice milk next to digestive pills. It wasn't hot or popular to consume dairy-free milk. People who were vegan, lactose intolerant, or just wanted non-dairy milk were on the fringes. Fast forward to today and there's too many options to choose from, with them being available from grocery stores to coffee shops.
Consumers are convinced that milk isn't as great anymore, they're really unsure about the dairy industry. With the rise of health trends, people wanting to opt in for a more sustainable/ethical product, and documentaries portraying how food is actually made, consumers today are more educated than ever before, and are willing to pay more for these products. This shift in consumer behavior has been led by millennials and Gen Z.
Some scientists are looking in to better understand how cows feel and what are ways to improve their lives that are scientifically sound and economically viable. Experiments done by people like Professor von Keyserlingk look more closely at improving the positive experiences they are in. These tests have led to improvements, including housing multiple cows together and allowing cows to keep their tails. The tail swishing was originally believed it spread feces and bacteria, but now farmers just view it as an annoyance.
By 2024, the plant based market is expected to grow to over 21B, and the common theme around brands that are taking a piece of the pie is change: questioning the norms and the way things have been done, and developing products that are tied to a strong mission, and are sustainable and ethical.
Still, even with big brands like Oatly, they are being held accountable by who supports and finances their business.
Alternatives to Consider
Throughout the article we’ve talked about the numerous different alternatives people are considering drinking instead of cow’s milk. We want to call out that while there is a lot of research for cow’s milk, there is less research for dairy-free alternatives. There are also issues with producing dairy-free alternatives and they might not be as beneficial for children.
But in general, milk alternatives are better for the planet over dairy in general. We’ll do a deeper dive in a future newsletter edition.
Here are a few for us to call out:
Almond: Occupy less farmland, but requires more water and bee pollination while also not being nutritionally dense.
Coconut: Poor ethical payment practices toward workers, while also lacking in some crucial nutrients and high in saturated fat.
Cashew: Similar to almond and coconut where lots of water thickening agents are used, leaning toward a decreased amount of nutritional value.
Hemp: More fat and protein, more representative of the necessary nutrients.
Oat: Performs well in sustainability, grown in cooler climates. Some worry about pesticides, so find an appropriate brand.
Rice: Inexpensive, but produces more greenhouse gas emissions than other alternatives and often sold with sweeteners.
Soy: Most balanced nutritional profile comparable to dairy, but doesn’t respond well to high heat. Downfall is the amount of rainforests being cut down for soy farms.
Here are some brands to consider shopping from, which luckily can be found at your local grocery store. Average milk price is around $2.50 - $5, depending on the state.
Silk | $3 | B-Corp that sells soy milk, oat milk, and others.
Ripple | $4 | Sells pea milk, with specific ones for children.
Planet Oat | $4 | Planet focused oat milk company that donates to nonprofits.
Living Harvest | $4 | Hemp milk focused group.
Forager Project | $6 | Cashew and oat milk plant-focused brand.
What You Can Do
Consider switching over to a plant based milk: it's better for the environment, your health, and animal welfare.
Look closer into the ingredients and where your dairy milk might come from — each brand is different, so you might learn more about how they treat their cows.
Read more about the shift in consumers in not drinking milk and finding alternative ways to receive the same nutrients in the links above.
Share the love! Send this to a friend and make dairy-free milk mustaches together. 🥛
Questions or comments on this piece? Suggestions on what we should cover next? Send us a note.