The truth about the great oat milk ‘con’

When it comes to the health and nutritional aspect, the vegan dairy industry has a lot of work to do.

Although dairy products are not vital to good health, concerns have been raised about how switching to a vegetarian diet could make it difficult to reach the required levels of nutrients and vitamins.

Cow’s milk is rich in nutrients and an easy source of vital vitamins, says Professor Ian Givens, Director of the Institute of Food, Nutrition and Health at the University of Reading. A study published last year by his colleagues, which analyzed the nutritional value of milk alternatives, showed that plant milks contain less protein. Legume alternatives such as soy have the highest protein content in quantity, Givens says, “it was still much lower than cow’s milk, which is not a huge problem for adults but a problem for young children.”

Cow’s milk was also richer in iodine, B12 and B2. There was no significant difference in calcium, which Givens attributes to the plant-fortified milk.

While vegans can eat a healthy diet without dairy, he says they have to work extra hard to get vitamins like B12 from synthetic sources. He mentioned one of the troubling teenage demographics, in which studies have shown they have very low intakes of calcium, magnesium, iodine and iron, consistent with a vegan diet. “One of the big issues in that period of life is bone growth.”

Patrick Holden, founder of the Sustainable Food Fund, says that rethinking the milk industry is vital if we are to address concerns about the environment.

He lays out silage every morning on his organic dairy farm in Wales (the longest-running in the country) listening to the radio: “At the moment, there are a lot of advertisements for this and that plant-based one.”

In addition to being a big business, he believes that the popularity of plant-based products is a reaction that people are “rightly disturbed by intensive livestock production and because they do not have the information to distinguish between livestock products that are part of the problem and those that are part of the solution, The solution is to become a vegetarian or vegan.”

However, he and Buxton agree that pasture-fed dairy can not only reduce carbon emissions but can sequester carbon. “This is really the holy grail to look out for in the future,” Buxton says.

But how can milk compete when supermarkets treat it as a loss leader, putting farmers on a treadmill for condensation to drive down prices, while the average plant-based milk costs more than £1? (Although many coffee shops, such as Starbucks, have stopped charging extra for plant-based milk.)

My milk-drinking journey began with abstaining from an animal welfare standpoint and saw me go full circle from silver cap to plant and back again. Being a milk tea drinker, I learned to love soy and now I’m back to the udder. I’ve come to realize that things are rarely black and white – although I’ve learned to love black tea (just to avoid the problem altogether). As a consumer, I chose organic milk and yogurt. Holden would like to go further.

“Organic products go a long way toward delivering a lot of the things we’ve identified as important to sustainability, but I’d like to have a rating system that enables people to know which herd their milk is coming from,” he says.

“I would like to see us drink gently produced milk and love the cows. We need to know the story behind all the food we eat. We are not doing that at the moment.”

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