Trust the cow and not the chemist

Lee Mielke

Happy June Dairy Month. I write that every year because dairy farmers keep providing us one of the safest, healthiest and sustainable food and drink available on the planet.

Yes, fluid milk consumption continues to decline as consumer lifestyles and preferences change and competitive beverages vie for attention. But, contrary to what the plant-based beverage manufactures want you to believe, U.S. milk consumption continues to grow, albeit in other forms.

Years ago the popular Got Milk campaign raised the possibility of there being a day that there was no milk to drink. While we’re a long way from that ever happening, we have, for the first time ever, seen shortages on grocery shelves, empty spaces that you thought only occurred in “poor” countries. The latest shortage in America is baby formula, with dire predictions of more food shortages to come as the price of diesel and inflation soars.

COVID, shipping challenges, shortages of help, and trucking issues have made the impossible, possible even in America. Thankfully, there was very little, if any, lack of dairy products in the U.S. although we now see it could happen for a variety of reasons.

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

The dairy industry must address with facts, the claims that plant-based products make as well as the assumptions that some would-be buyers have, namely that plant-based means “better for the environment,” better for the body, and needed to “save the plant.” 

The best argument on the health benefits of the so-called “milks,” starts with simply reading their labels. Plant-based beverages contain ingredients we can’t even pronounce, let alone swallow. Again, read the label on what is called “milk” or “butter” or “cheese.” Find out what’s really in there, how it’s made, and where it comes from, a cow or a test tube.

The increasing awareness of the sustainability of the food we eat has been diligently answered by the dairy industry. The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) points out that, due to innovative farming and feed practices, a gallon of milk in 2017 required 30% less water, 21% less land, and 19% smaller carbon footprint than in 2007. 

Those innovative farming and feeding practices included improved humane treatment of animals as well.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization echoes that, reporting that, “Since 2005 North America was the only region in the world that reduced its greenhouse gas emissions, even as it increased milk production, making its greenhouse gas intensity for dairy products the lowest in the world.”

NMPF adds that “Dairy farms are also a tool against food waste by diverting byproducts, such as almond hulls, citrus pulp, and brewer’s grains from other food industries and using them as feed, converting potentially unused resources into high-nutrient foods and beverages. Dairy farmers also convert food waste and manure into valuable products such as renewable energy and fertilizer,” and fertilizer is something else that’s in short supply due to the war in Ukraine.

The U.S. dairy has set a goal to achieve greenhouse gas neutrality by 2050, according to NMPF, “creating a cross-industry Net Zero Initiative that advances research, on-farm pilots and new market development to make sustainability practices more accessible and affordable to farms of all sizes and regions.”

Furthermore, the April 14 Daily Dairy Report states; “Compared to plant-based alternatives, dairy is not only the better choice nutritionally, it’s also the top choice from a cost standpoint. The National Milk Producers Federation notes, ‘the lower nutritional content of plant-based beverages is well-established, with some almond brands having one-eighth the protein of dairy and none of them having the unique blend of 13 essential nutrients that set dairy apart.’

“NMPF data shows ‘On a per gallon basis, plant-based beverages cost 50% to 100% more than milk. As for plant-based cheese alternatives, they too cost twice as much as real cheese on a pound for pound basis and four times what imitation cheese, which still contains some dairy, costs.”

The DDR adds; “While vegan ‘cheeses’ are typically lower in fat, they are also lower in protein and calcium and higher in sodium. Vegans can’t count on vegan cheese as a protein source, the way that vegetarians may sometimes rely on regular cheese, and they are not a super vegan health food the way kale and lentils are, noted a recent Eating Well article.”

Bottom line is that dairy products provide key nutrients necessary for healthy child development as well as adult health and include 13 essential nutrients. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans in fact warns that 88% of Americans have insufficient dairy in their diets.

Organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the School Nutrition Association have expressed concern about “the lack of labeling integrity among marketers of non-dairy substitutes after observing child malnourishment caused by reliance on plant-based imitators by parents who mistakenly thought that they were getting dairy’s unique nutrient package. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans also cautions against plant-based substitution, noting that most plant-based beverages lack nutritional equivalence.”

Trust the cow and not the chemist. Much of a cow’s nutrition comes from plants that humans can’t consume, energy that’s then turned into dairy products that humans can digest. Let the cows eat the grass. Give yourself the “dairy best.”