Give yourself the “Dairy Best” and let the cows eat the grass

Lee Mielke

Happy June Dairy Month. This special month of the year has become part of the American psyche. Successful advertising and promotional campaigns over the years have embedded it into consumer minds. But what is its future?

I have written June Dairy Month columns in the past, warning consumers not to automatically assume they will always find the abundance of their favorite dairy products available in their local grocery store.

Last year, as 2020 was swallowed up by COVID-19, we experienced shortages of many products, starting with toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and even meat. 

Thankfully, dairy products were not among them and remained abundant, in fact, too abundant, as restaurants closed by the thousands and dairy consumption took a hit, sending farm prices on a roller coaster of extreme lows to highs not seen in seven years.

The dairy industry survived the pandemic though many dairy farmers did not. Consumption patterns are returning as more restaurants reopen and recover though thousands didn’t. We’re not out of the COVID woods yet and we do not know what lies ahead this year in that regard.

Dairy faces another growing and, perhaps more daunting challenge, as young millennial consumers in particular weigh the choice of plant-based meats, beverages, and yes what the producers of these products call “butter” and “cheese.”

The dairy industry must address with facts, the claims that these plant-based products make as well as the assumptions that many of these would-be buyers have, that plant-based means they are “better for the environment,” better for your body’s health, and are needed to “save the plant.” 

The best defense against the health benefits of the so-called “milks,” starts with simply reading the label. Plant-based beverages contain ingredients we can’t even pronounce, let alone swallow.

Last year the National Milk Producers Federation cited a consumer survey showing that 77% thought almond-based drinks had as much or more protein per serving than milk. It doesn’t. Cow’s milk has up to eight times as much protein. But who knows that?

The Federation rightly objects to these products calling themselves by familiar dairy names because doing so gives consumers the illusion that they share the same nutritional value when they emphatically don’t.

When asked if plant-based “milks” are good for you, even the May 10 New York Times answers, “They can be, but in most cases, they should not be considered a nutritional substitute for dairy,” and says that it depends on which type of plant “milk” you drink.

It suggests checking if it’s “fortified” and “How many added sugars it contains and how it fits in to your overall diet.” The Times warns; “You shouldn’t assume, for instance, that plant milks contain the same nutrients as cow’s milk, even if the drink is white and has the same creamy texture.” The article points out that “Some of the sweetened versions can contain more added sugar than a doughnut.”

The nutritional package that cow’s milk and its resulting dairy products offer continues to be supported by science and plenty of health studies. Study the differences. Milk from cows is naturally rich in protein, calcium, potassium and B vitamins, and is often even fortified with vitamins A and D. 

The plant-based industry is hungry for sales and loves to feed the false idea that dairy was popular in the days of “Leave it to Beaver,” and is in fact dying. National Milk however points out that per-capita consumption of all dairy is its highest it’s been since the 1950s. 

Last but not least, the dairy industry has been and continues to innovatively work to be a sustainable provider of nutritional food products. The development and employment of regenerative agricultural practices, for example, are designed to save and improve soil and even sequester carbon, actually drawing down carbon dioxide from the air. 

Animal science and research and development has resulted in dairy operations driving innovation and implementation of new, gentler equipment and regenerative practices even on the cows that farmers have in their care. Cow manure on many of the larger operations goes to an anaerobic digester to capture methane which generates clean renewable electricity. 

June Dairy Month represents a valuable industry that has been, is now, and hopefully always will benefit society for many years to come. Celebrate its contribution to your life, health, and prosperity. Give yourself the “Dairy Best” and let the cows eat the grass!