I loved milk. I used to be one of those people that would buy the thickest, creamiest milk I could find and drink a generous glass of it with breakfast. I remember buying and consuming a pint of full-fat milk after running a marathon once.
I started looking into the science of nutrition when I was working in South Sudan. I was living in a UN Protection of Civilians camp where food choices were scarce, and I was existing on a diet of ugali and beans out of circumstance. I was slightly concerned that animal products had fallen almost entirely off the menu, so I wanted to understand what impact their absence was having on my body.
A book called The China Study first piqued my interest. In this colossal work, Professor Colin Campbell of Cornell University examined the link between the consumption of animal products and disease, in particular heart disease, diabetes and cancer, over a 20-year period. The research showed a clear correlation between the two. I knew I was doing well on my mostly meat and dairy-free regimen, supplemented by homegrown fruit and vegetables, but was the absence of meat and dairy really responsible?
I sought out more information. From then on, I absorbed as much of the research I could through books, medical journals, science papers and completed a course on Plant Based Nutrition at Winchester University. Five years later and here I am, encouraging people of the local community to go for plant-based milk over cow’s milk!
Why, you may ask?
Well, to be honest, five years ago I would have told someone like me to b****r off! But I like to think that I would have eventually listened to reason while contemplating a cold cup of creamy cow juice.
As with all arguments for making a shift to a more plant-based living, there are three pillars: health, the environment and animal welfare. But with cow’s milk there is a more basic point of logic. Cow’s milk is intended to turn a little calf into the hulking mass of a cow. It is filled with growth hormones not suited for humans. There is a reason why 70% of the world is lactose intolerant. Humans are the only animals to consume the milk of another animal, and to continue to do so after weaning.
In brief, contemporary research relating to health will tell you that dairy is a significant source of saturated fat and cholesterol in addition to a hormone called IGF-1 which has been linked with the proliferation of cancer cells. Studies have shown a 38% increased risk of prostate cancer in individuals with higher levels of IGF-1 in the blood. Additionally, the main protein in milk, casein, has also been shown to increase the growth of cancer cells. A 2020 study looking into the relationship between breast cancer and different milks found that replacing cow’s milk with soya reduced the risk of breast cancer by 32%.
If the health aspect isn’t convincing enough, the environmental realities of dairy production may be more impactful. When you consider that on average it takes 628 litres of water to produce a single litre of milk and over 10 times the amount of land compared to plant-based alternatives, it is clear how unsustainable it is. The world’s 13 largest dairy producers emit as much greenhouse gas as the whole of the UK. Plant-based alternatives, per litre of milk, are a fraction of the environmental cost.
I will not get into the animal welfare side of things here, but the basic practice of repeatedly artificially inseminating a cow and dragging away her calves every year at birth for the sake of a glass of milk seems to me unethical in itself.
So why do so many of us continue to drink cow’s milk when contemporary, fortified plant-based alternatives provide all the nutrition and taste without the health risks or harm to animals at a significantly lower cost to the environment?
Most people in the UK have grown up with meat and dairy and our palates are used to the taste. For many, meat and dairy are considered a part of our culture and an integral part of the great British countryside. We as a species are reluctant to change from what we know and like. We are defensive of our norms and tastes. Furthermore, we have been told by industry giants that milk is essential to bone health and infant nutrition. Both of which are false. Sure, milk contains calcium but so do most plant-based milks and almost all leafy greens like kale, spinach, pak choi and broccoli.
The truth is that unless you are living in food poverty and have no ability to source your basic nutrients from anywhere else, the consumption of dairy is likely having more of a negative impact on your body and the environment than a positive one. Plant-based alternatives carry almost none of the negative baggage and compare at least as well as cow’s milk in terms of the good nutrition with almost none of the bad stuff.
The overwhelming scientific consensus will tell you that a plant-based diet is optimal for both human and planetary health. As a 2019 Oxford University study found, Western diets are a leading source of poor health and environmental harm. As noted by the study co-author, the findings stress that replacing meat and dairy with a variety of plant-based foods can improve both your health and the health of the planet.
My proposition to anyone reading this is to take a look at the reading below while enjoying a cup of tea/coffee with a plant-based milk. If it’s the taste you are concerned about, get a barista version of oat milk and within a week or so, I am confident you will prefer your choice of beverage, with the added knowledge that your body, the planet and some old cow will be grateful.
· The China Study – Colin T Campbell PhD
· How Not to Die – Dr Michael Gregor
· Eating Plant-Based – Dr Shireen Kassam
· The Proof is in the Plants – Simon Hill
· There is no Planet B – Mike Berners-Lee