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Does It Really Make A Difference If You Get Your Dairy From An Animal Or An Oat?

...asking for a friend.

Follow up: is there any milk that's actually good for you AND the environment?

There is a plethora of non-dairy ‘milks’ available on the market right now, but are any of them actually worth drinking? We take a look at some of the pros and cons of cow’s milk and its closest competitor, new favourite oat milk.

While the majority of us have been drinking cow’s milk since birth, the numbers of people avoiding dairy-based milk in Ireland is rising. According to recent research by the National Dairy Council (NDC), 41% of Irish women and 30% of Irish men are now avoiding or limiting their dairy consumption. However, the Central Statistics Office (CSO) reports that domestic milk intake increased by 1.5% in January 2018 when compared to January 2017.

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This research suggests that while there are people in Ireland reducing their milk intake, those who still enjoy cow’s milk have been increasing its prevalence in their diet. It’s no secret that cow’s milk is packed full of nutritional benefits. In fact, according to Caroline Gunn from NDC, there are significant nutritional differences between dairy and non-dairy milk:

The main difference is that the dairy alternatives are often fortified with calcium and vitamin B12, while dairy milk is a natural source of calcium.

"Dairy milk is naturally higher in protein at about 3.5%." Gunn continued. "The alternatives are generally around 0.5% protein, with the exception of soya at around 3%. Some alternatives have added sugar, while lactose (milk sugar) is naturally occurring. Other differences include price, number of ingredients and country of origin. Dairy alternatives are generally more expensive and are composed of a number of ingredients from different countries. Irish milk is a single natural product, largely produced from pasture-based cows.”

On a global scale, cow’s milk consumption is decreasing at an even more rapid pace than here in Ireland- it’s reported that Americans now consume 18 gallons of milk a year, whereas in the 1970s they enjoyed at least 30 gallons of the stuff a year. Nowadays if you venture into any coffee shop, petrol station or canteen, cow’s milk is usually only one of a variety of milk options available. Soy milk has fallen out of favour in recent years now that a new crowd have become more prominent –almond, coconut, cashew, amongst others, seem to be more popular of late.

Oat milk is particularly on-trend for 2019, with Oatly becoming the brand of choice. However, it seems that Oatly, a Swedish company founded in the 1990s, may have become more popular than it can handle as there have been several shortages of the product over the past year. At one point last December, a sort of black market around the product had cropped up, with Amazon sellers offering a 12-pack of Oatly Barista Blend Oat Milk for over $200! Oatly itself acknowledged the shortage, saying that they would endeavour to restock the product as quickly as possible.

But what about the environmental impact of non-dairy milk? Livestock accounts for 31% of total methane emissions in the US, with dairy cattle alone accounting for 26% of these. Oatly, which has become a favourite with baristas around the world, runs a rather tongue-in-cheek Twitter account where the company regularly acknowledges that its product is far better for the environment than dairy milk. Alpro, one of the leading alternative milk suppliers in the UK, has stated that its “soya-based drinks use 2x less land, 4x less water and create 2.5x times less CO2” than dairy milk.

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This isn’t the case for all alternative milk however, as it has been well documented that almond milk requires around a gallon of water to grow a single almond. California, which produces around 80% of the world’s almonds, is a notoriously dry US state, which suffered severe drought from 2011 to 2017. Soybeans used for Alpro’s soya milk are mostly imported from a variety of Eastern European countries, if not further afield, which creates a massive ecological footprint.

Overwhelmed? Us too.

So let's break this down: if you're worried about which milk is actually good for you and the environment, there doesn’t seem to be any definitive answer. Our best recommendation would be to use your preferred ‘milk’ source in moderation, ensuring it is as sustainable as possible before you purchase it.

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