Milk has received a lot of attention in the media recently, as our struggling dairy farmers battle against filthy industry price cuts. Then last week a number of new articles popped up, raising public health concerns over the one-in-six Australians who avoid milk (found in this recently published CSIRO study). Researchers discovered the most common reason was to relieve gastrointestinal symptoms such as cramps, bloating or wind, while a smaller number don’t like the taste or think dairy is fattening.
The study highlights that most milk-avoiders are self-diagnosed, seeking the help of ‘Dr Google’ rather than professional medical advice. This potentially dangerous and often unnecessary behaviour is often driven by widespread and well-marketed pseudo-nutrition science.* Although this is undeniably a health concern, it’s not the issue that these articles highlighted to me.
There are other reasons people choose to limit dairy and they are anything but misinformed. We just don’t often hear about them, which is why I wanted to share them here.
Broadly speaking, sustainability is woven together by economic, social and environmental threads. With regards to milk, we’ve heard a lot about economic sustainability with the price cut crisis, and social sustainability has been highlighted by nutrition studies.
The environmental angle is less popular, but just as important to the health of the whole food system – and subsequently our own health.
Have you ever considered how dairy cows are able to continuously produce milk? It might sound obvious but it’s easy to forget that milk production is triggered by birth, which means cows must become pregnant every year. A by-product of the system, most of their newborn calves (known asbobby calves) are taken away for slaughter within a couple of days.# You can never un-watch footage distressed calves being forcibly removed from a herd of pining mothers.
A little less emotional but still disturbing is the data from the Food and Agricultural Organisation showing that the livestock sector (meat and diary) contributes 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is in the form of methane as digestive by-product, nitrous oxide released from manure, and carbon dioxide from burning of fossil fuels in feed production, fertilisers, food processing and transport.
Then there’s the water footprint. Global statistics show that a litre of milk requires 1000 litres of water to produce, 5000 litres for 1 kg of cheese. To give you an idea of the difference in resource intensity between animal and plant products… 1 kg of chocolate requires 24,000 litres of water, beef 15,500, pork 4800, chicken 3900, bread (from wheat) 1300, potato 250 and lettuce 130.
But what about my calcium?
The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend between 2.5 – 4 serves of dairy a day^ depending on your age and gender. This is based on our calcium requirements and the established link it has to improve and maintain bone density. The evidence often doesn’t relate to whole dairy foods, and there is even some evidence showing no association between milk intake and risk of osteoporotic fractures – the outcome of concern.
Instead of just drinking more milk to meet calcium requirements, why not consider all the non-dairy sources of calcium and nutrient-rich plant based alternatives? You could go for calcium fortified non-dairy mills, tofu and soybean products, bok choy, kale, collards, almonds, broccoli and the soft bones of cooked fish such as sardines. (Stir fry anyone…?)
The key message is that your choices can easily extend beyond nutrition to promote a healthy and sustainable food system as well.
Just make sure when you do choose cows milk that you support our farmers and pay the extra $1 for a local brand!!
*It’s the same story with gluten avoidance, paleo diets, detoxing etc. One of the reasons I started this blog is to bring a qualified voice of reason to all the nutrition rubbish floating around.
# If you want to hear the (extreme) side of this, PETA goes into a lot more detail.
^ Just take a moment to realise that 4 serves of dairy is equivalent one litre per day!