The dairy industry uses around 10 times more land and 2 to 20 times more water than producing soy, oat, almond or rice milk, according to a 2018 study analysis by the non-profit organization Global Change Data Lab and the University of Oxford in the UK.
Dairy products also create about three times more greenhouse gas emissions, according to the analysis. The burps and feces of ruminant animals such as cattle, sheep and goats generate methane, a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide to warm the planet within 20 years. said the United Nations Environment Programme.
Yet people drink milk for nutritional reasons, and it is an essential source of protein and nutrients in some parts of the world. This could complicate the answer to the question of which milk is best for the planet, for you and your children. Here’s what the science says.
Advertising featuring a pearly white cow’s milk mustache on a smiley face sends an oft-repeated message home: dairy milk is good for your health. It contains calcium, protein, and other nutrients that help people grow tall and strong.
“Milk is quite amazing nutritionally because a young mammal can live on milk alone for many months and grow,” lead nutrition researcher Dr. Walter Willett told CNN. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an optimal food for our whole lives.”
Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, and fellow Harvard endocrinologist and pediatrician Dr. David Ludwig discussed milk and of human health in a 2020 review for The New England Journal of Medicine.
Solid bones: The couple took a hard look at the common belief that drinking milk creates healthy bones that will be less likely to fracture. It’s a primary rationale, Willett said, for current U.S. nutritional recommendations of 3 cups a day of fat-free milk or other dairy products for children ages 9 to 18 and adults and 2½ cups a day for children from 2 to 8 years old.
Interestingly, meta-analyses of studies looking at drinking up to 4 cups of milk a day have found no definitive benefit for fracture prevention, even in children, Willett said. A 2014 study by him and colleagues found a 9% increased risk of subsequent hip fracture for each additional glass of milk consumed per day by adolescent boys, but not by girls. And in a country-by-country comparison, Willett and Ludwig found higher rates of hip fractures in countries that consumed the highest amounts of milk and calcium.
Height: Milk helps children grow — much taller, Willett said. What’s wrong with that? Tall people have more bone fractures, he said, because “mechanically, if you have a long stick, it’s easier to break than a short stick.”
Studies have also shown an association between height and an increased risk of many cancers and lung problems. Tall people seem to have less heart disease, but are at higher risk for atrial fibrillation, or irregular heartbeat, and varicose veins.
Lactose intolerance: Dairy products can only be introduced to a human baby after 12 months due to the overabundance of protein and minerals they contain, Willett said. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, dairy products given before age 1 can cause intestinal bleeding and damage a young baby’s kidneys.
But unless your ancestors came from a part of the world where it was genetically advantageous to consume dairy products, your body will stop making the enzyme lactase in infancy. Without this enzyme, your body has a hard time breaking down milk sugars.
Studies have estimated that 68% of the world’s population may be sensitive to milk, leading to abdominal bloating, cramps and pain.
“Milk and dairy products were consumed mainly in northern European countries,” Willett said. “Most of the world’s population does not consume milk after infancy.”
Hormones and antibiotics: Dairy cows are almost always pregnant, Willett said, naturally increasing levels of progestins, estrogen and other hormones in milk. To increase milk production, he said, cows today are also bred to produce higher levels of insulin-like growth factor 1, or IGF-1.
Excess IGF-1 in humans has been linked to cancer, insulin resistance, and may play a role in age-related decline. Livestock may also be given antibiotics to ward off infections. Consumers are increasingly concerned about the impact of hormones and antibiotic resistance.
Weightloss: Low-fat or fat-free milk is obviously a healthier beverage choice than sugary or diet sodas, teas, and other processed beverages on the market. But dairy studies have shown that only yogurt is associated with less weight gain, Willett said.
The available evidence also shows no clear benefit to drinking low-fat milk instead of whole milk for weight control in adults or children, he said. A 2020 meta-analysis review even found that whole milk may help reduce childhood obesity.
The verdict? “We have to look at everything we do from an environmental perspective,” Willett said. “The answer is not just zero dairy for everyone, but three servings a day is unnecessary for health and a disaster for the environment.”
Willett points to the goal of 250 grams or 1 cup of dairy products per day set by the EAT-Lancet Commission, which tries to create a healthy and sustainable universal diet.
“That serving per day is probably best as unsweetened yogurt or maybe cheese, then if you want you can add plant-based milk alternatives,” Willett says. “I think from a health and environmental point of view, it’s a reasonable starting point.”
best vegetable milk
The vegetable milk market is exploding.
“Almost all nuts, as well as legumes and grains are becoming options for plant-based milks. The newest alternative I’ve found is banana milk!” said nutrition expert Christopher Gardner, a research professor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center in California, who writes a book chapter on milk.
So far, Gardner has found milks made from legumes (soybeans, peas, peanuts, lupine, and cowpeas), tree nuts (almond, coconut, hazelnut, pistachio, walnut, macadamia, and cashew), seeds (sesame, flax, hemp and sunflower), cereals (oats, rice, corn, spelled, quinoa, teff and amaranth) and a potato milk.
Environmental impact : Science has yet to examine the environmental impact of every new entry into the milk alternative market, but you can measure rice milk against soy, almonds, and oats.
The winner? According to analysis by the Global Change Data Lab, it depends. Rice has the lowest impact on land use, almond has the lowest impact on greenhouse gas emissions, and soy has the lowest impact on freshwater use and l Eutrophication is the contamination of a body of water with nutrients that cause excessive growth of plants and algae. Oat milks fall somewhere in the middle.
Nutritionally, each milk alternative category has advantages and disadvantages compared to dairy products, Gardner said, adding that he was unable to review all of the brands on the market, which are ” too many to realistically cover”.
Calcium: Dairy products are the winners here, but plant-based milk manufacturers have solved that problem by adding calcium to bring their milks up to at least 300 milligrams, which is the level of calcium in dairy products, Gardner said.
“Exceptions to this that I found were coconut milk and rice milk, which some brands have levels of 130 milligrams of calcium per serving or less,” he said.
Protein: Soy and pea-based milk, for example, contain as much protein as dairy — about 8 grams of protein in each 8-ounce glass, Gardner said. Other legume-based milks are also good choices.
Coconut and rice milks, however, have low protein levels, almond milk contains less than a gram of protein per serving, and oat milks range between 1 and 3 grams per serving, a-t -he declares.
Lipids, sodium and cholesterol: Compared to dietary cholesterol in whole dairy products, most plant milks are good choices — plant foods never have dietary cholesterol, Gardner said. Sodium levels are relatively equal between plant milks and dairy products at around 100 milligrams of sodium. Saturated fats are low, with the exception of coconut milk, a tropical plant that typically has high levels, he added.
“No need to fear the fat of most plant-based milks — unsaturated fats are considered healthy in the modest amounts found in plant-based milks,” Gardner says.
Vitamins A, D and B12: The only reason dairy products are a good source of vitamins A and D is because they’re fortified with these vitamins when they’re made, Gardner said. Vegetable milks did the same.
Vitamin B12 is naturally present in dairy products in very small amounts because cows obtain the vitamin from the bacteria present on the grass they graze. Some plant milks are fortified with B12, Gardner said, but not all. To find out, he says to look on the label for cobalamin, the technical name.
Additive sweeteners: Dairy products have their own built-in sweetener, lactose, the sugar that many people find upsetting their stomachs.
“For cow’s milk, lactose is a natural milk sugar and therefore is included in the total sugar content, but is not considered added sugar,” Gardner said.
Plant-based milks don’t have such an edge, and that’s where nutrition can stumble, Gardner said. In general, the original versions of almond, soy, and coconut milks all contain added cane sugar to bring them up to dairy level sweetness. Vanilla options contain even more added sugars, with chocolate the most.
However, many alternative milk brands offer an unsweetened version. “No cane or other sugar is added, total carbs tend to be lower, total sugar tends to be lower, and added sugars tend to be zero,” Gardner said.
“Try the unsweetened versions. They’re usually just as tasty as the original version, but with fewer calories, fewer carbs, fewer sugars, and fewer added sugars,” he says.
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