Milk from cows was once marketed as the perfect food. For aspiring young footballers it was touted as the difference between becoming a Liverpool legend like Ian Rush and ending up at Accrington Stanley. “Who are they?” asked the kid in the famous Milk Marketing Board ads of the 1980s. “Exactly,” his friend responded.
Back then, plant-based milks weren’t unlike Accrington Stanley: unknown and unfashionable. But things have changed. Globally, sales of non-dairy milks reached $21bn (£16bn) last year, double the figure registered in 2009, according to analysts at Euromonitor.
In 2016, ordering a coconut cappuccino or soy latte is perfectly normal. “There’s barely a high-street coffee shop that doesn’t offer at least a soy alternative and, more often than not, an almond and a coconut one too,” says Vicky Upton from Alpro UK & Ireland. “It may sound like a cliché, but health has become a desirable lifestyle choice and plant-based eating is at its heart.”
But are these alternatives to cow’s milk really any better for us? For those with an lactose intolerance, yes, but only two in every 100 Brits suffer from that (5%; worldwide the figure is 65%). Yet in the six months to September 2015, one on five of us (19%) bought dairy substitutes and a similar number (20%) would be interested in coffee using non-dairy milk, according to market research firm Mintel.
Anya Marco from food service consultancy Allegra can’t comment on whether plant-based alternatives (PBAs) are healthier, but she knows that consumers do perceive them to be. “We’ve found that consumers want more choice than simply soy as they try to balance their coffee consumption against and increasingly perceived ‘unhealthy’ dairy choice,” she says.
The scene for this “dangers of dairy”
era was set back in the 1990s when, as food-industry expert Simone Baroke puts it, “a new breed of avant-garde nutritionists started recommending to people that they lay off cow’s milk”.
Perhaps not coincidentally, around the same time dairy intolerance – an inability to digest the milk sugar lactose – and milk allergy – a reaction to the proteins in milk – became more widely recognised. Over the years, scientific studies have also linked cow’s milk consumption to health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, asthma and even some forms of cancer.
Comparisons between cow and plant-based milks are also particularly favourable in terms of saturated fat, calories and nutrient value. “Take a typical fortified soy milk made for coffee shops,” says Jimmy Pearson from the Vegan Society. “It contains 44 calories and almost 0g saturated fat per 100ml, with the same amount of protein, calcium and vitamins B12, D and E, and riboflavin as cow’s milk.
Compare this with the same quantity of whole cow’s milk, which contains more calories – 66 calories – and significantly more saturated fat at 3g per 100ml.”
The upshot is that, rather than a short-lived fad, dairy avoidance has become a mainstream lifestyle choice, and one which non-dairy brands have done well out of. Fair play, you might say – they’re only trying to make a buck. What’s more, PBAs are also better for the environment (although more on that later), so it’s a win-win. Well, not quite.
One concern is that some of the more fanciful health and environmental claims for PBAs have been allowed to blossom into an over-simplistic perception that non-dairy alternatives are better for us. In 2013, Allergy UK discovered that 44% of people who class themselves as dairy intolerant are self-diagnosed. “The results are worrying,” said Lindsey McManus, the organisation’s deputy CEO, at the time. “Thousands of people in the UK could be at risk of nutritional deficiency by self-diagnosing themselves.”
All or nothing
Any nutritionist worth their salt will tell you that balance is the key to a good diet. Switching completely from dairy to non-dairy without medical reason or expert advice isn’t a good idea. PBAs may be fortified with vitamins and nutrients, but you still have to seek out other nutrients you’d get in dairy milk.
“Alternatives are good, but there’s nothing wrong with milk as well,” says Linia Patel, a dietician and sports nutritionist. “Variety is the spice of life.” Intake will also depend on lifestyle, she adds. “It might be slightly controversial, but I wouldn’t recommend soy protein to my rugby players.”
Of course, controversial remarks are part of the scientific scrum around dairy and non-dairy consumption. “I think a lot of people are buying [dairy-free] products because they think it’s trendy or they assume they are superior,” said Sioned Quirke, a dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, in a recent interview with the Guardian. “They are not a superior product in any way, shape or form.”
In March, the Dairy All-Party Parliamentary Group (AAPG) stirred things up with a report suggesting those in the business of selling PBAs might be milking some of the perceptions about their products, fuelled by media coverage of scientific studies. Dairy UK, which represents farmers, buyers and processors, says its counterparts “sometimes use terminology that could be misleading or confusing to consumers by downplaying the health and nutritional benefits of dairy”.
“In terms of any hard evidence as to whether or not PBAs are ‘healthier’ – I don’t know of any,” says registered nutritionist Laura Thomas. What is certain, though, is that the scaremongering goes both ways. Consumption of soy has been in the press of late, for example. “Why a vegetarian diet may leave a man less fertile,” screamed a recent Daily Mail headline. According to Thomas in the Huffington Post there’s nothing to worry about. The BDA is also of the opinion that soy is safe to drink.
Such scaremongering is hard to control, but much as milk’s health halo began to slip in the 1990s, questions are now being asked about the claims being made about dairy-free products. But such criticisms are also fuelling innovation. Some dairy-free brands have begun to remove added sugar, as well as thickeners such as carrageenan.
But what effect is the demand for non-milk alternatives placing on our coffee shops? The industry is split. “As baristas, we suffered for too long with [dairy alternative] products that don’t pour very well and the lactose intolerant suffered for too long with ‘milk’ that objectively doesn’t really complement coffee,” says Daniel Say, barista trainer for Union Hand-Roasted. “Nowadays, there are literally hundreds of options.”
Delivering a consensus on which is best is almost as difficult as determining which is healthier. Much like coffee, baristas have their favourites. Some say using soy brings them out in a cold sweat, while oat-based products produce a mouthfeel akin to cow’s milk. Equally, others argue soy is the best to work with, while oat milks produce latte that smells of porridge.
According Camilla Barnard, one of the founders of food and drink company Rude Health, almond milk is particularly popular at the moment. “We’re noticing an increasingly sophisticated understanding in the coffee-shop scene of how to use almond milk, particularly the impact of the coffee’s acidity level, as well as the speed at which the milk is introduced,” she says.
But here’s where it gets complicated again. PBAs are often promoted as being more environmentally friendly than cow’s milk, not least because production of the latter is responsible for 2.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions, in most thanks to methane emissions for the dairy herd.
If you want to do something about cutting greenhouse gases, therefore, reducing your dairy intake seems a sensible option. But that doesn’t mean non-dairy alternatives are any greener. Some 80% of the world’s almond harvest comes from drought-stricken California, for example. “There is a real risk of replacing dairy with nutrient-poor products, high in calories and with an important environmental cost,” noted the Dairy APPG in its report.
The jury may still be out on the pros and cons of milk, what is clear is that non-dairy alternatives are here to stay. But in all this, we shouldn’t forget that great coffee is our goal. As Alexander Ruas, 2015 Swedish Brewers Cup Champion, says, “We want people to ask about our coffee, not the type of milk we’ve used in it.”