The Dairy Question: How Do Milk Varieties Stack Up in Terms of Our Health And The Planet’s?

Whether it's pasteurized, raw, or entirely from plants, the milk industry has a significant influence on the Earth.

When Did Milk Consumption Begin?

Evidence of human milk consumption has been found in both the continents of Europe and Africa. While estimates vary, it's clear that people have been drinking milk for at least a few thousand years. According to an article in Science.org1, people in Kenya and Sudan were consuming milk at least 6,000 years ago. Meanwhile, Smithsonian journalist Danny Lewis explains Europeans' ability to digest milk only began around 4,000 years ago2. Over in Egypt, there's artwork on the tomb walls of Methethi that depicts an ancient Egyptian milking a cow. The estimated date of the art is around 2350 BC. Even with this in mind, some research has led scientists to believe that humans were drinking milk long before their bodies could properly digest it.

With all of these groups of people in varying parts of the world, there is one common denominator. People who domesticated milk-producing animals were the groups who first began drinking animal milk. There are a handful of theories that attempt to explain why humans started consuming cow milk in the first place.

For starters, with the domestication of livestock, farmers had a reliable source of food as opposed to hunting. Milk became a readily available ingredient, and more than likely naturally progressed into a common food item. Cow milk, in particular, rose in popularity likely due to the fact that cows were the easiest to work with and yielded a high production in comparison to other domesticated mammals.

Cow milk may have also been used when water wasn't clean enough to drink or to feed babies in the event the mother passed away. While there isn't one pinnacle explanation that exists, it's clear that milk has been a part of our history for generations. And, while it may have helped our survival many years ago, in today's modern world, people have begun to question whether dairy milk should be eliminated from our diets altogether. Not to mention, with the rise of soy and nut milks, the controversy around traditional cow's milk has also grown.

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Our Bodies and Lactose

The decline in dairy consumption can be attributed to factors like the popularity of veganism and the recognition that the majority of humans are lactose intolerant. Lactose is a type of sugar, and dairy milk contains a lot of it. It is also the only carbohydrate found in milk.

When babies are born, they have the ability to make an enzyme called lactase and this is what helps them digest the lactose found in their mother's milk. In most cases, once a child is weaned from breast milk, lactase is no longer produced. This also happens to many people, and it's why so many people have a hard time consuming milk or dairy products in general. Without active lactase, no living thing, animal or human, can drink milk. No other adult mammal species continues to produce lactase; humans are the only ones who have evolved to do so. Additionally, only about a third of the human population has the phenotype known as lactase persistence, meaning they have the enzymes to break down lactose. Even so, milk products are prevalent nearly everywhere.

How The Industrial Revolution Transformed Milk

The milk sector experienced a significant shift as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Between the years of 1760 and 1840, the Industrial Revolution began in Britain and slowly made its way around the world. Several pivotal advancements in technology characterized this period, such as new inventions, sourcing power from coal and steam, and a move towards machine manufacturing. Cities grew significantly, factories developed, and workers' rights movements sprouted as more and more people went to work in those unregulated factories.

Before pasteurization, milk spoiled quickly and presented a certain level of danger when consumed, especially during the growth of populated cities, cows within city limits typically lived in unhealthy conditions. In the United States, without the clean water found in more rural areas, cows in cities were fed byproducts that caused illness.

Thomas Moore's invention of the first refrigeration device offered a way to solve milk's spoiling problem. He constructed the device in the early 1800s, just towards the close of the Industrial Revolution, and even invited Thomas Jefferson to see how his invention operated. Just sixty years later, pasteurization entered into the conversation and further changed the dairy industry.

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What Exactly is Pasteurized Milk?

We've heard the term pasteurized milk, but what exactly goes into the process of pasteurization? Simply put, pasteurization is a heat-treatment method that's used to eliminate harmful microorganisms in milk. However, milk isn't the only food item that can undergo pasteurization. Cheese, fruit juices, honey, and eggs are sometimes pasteurized as well for differing reasons. The process is named after French scientist Louis Pasteur who originally tested pasteurization on wine and beer in the 1860s as a way to avoid atypical fermentation. The practice then moved over to milk, which not only killed microorganisms but also extended milk's shelf life.

The modern process of pasteurization can involve two methods, HTST or UHT pasteurization. HTST stands for high-temperature short time, and it's the most commonly used pasteurization process. It uses a boiler that produces steam to pasteurize milk.

Temperature and time are the two vital factors involved. Pasteurizers get filled with milk, the temperature of the milk must be monitored to ensure it reaches 161 degrees Fahrenheit and doesn't go over 165 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature then must be maintained for 15 seconds, followed by an immediate cool down that reaches 39 degrees.

Ultra-High Temperature Pasteurization is an even faster process. 280 degrees for just two seconds and then cooled to 39 degrees. Most notably, the latter matter creates a way longer shelf life for milk, around 40-60 days. Milk under the first method has a shelf life of 16-30 days.

Raw Milk And Raw Dairy Products

Why might someone choose to purchase and consume raw milk? Proponents of raw milk believe in the benefits of having "good" bacteria in the drink, citing that it encourages a strong immune system. Others might drink raw milk for the taste, which changes day by day due to the live cultures it contains. Only 19 states allow raw milk to be sold in retail stores, with another 12 allowing raw milk to be sold directly on the farm's property.

As far as laws are concerned, The Food and Drug Administration banned state-to-state sales of raw milk in 1987. Individual states, however, have the authority to choose whether or not raw milk sales are allowed within their state. As a result, laws vary across the country, and overall raw milk is regulated at varying degrees.

Only 19 states allow raw milk to be sold in retail stores

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Is Dairy Milk Sustainable?

By now, many of us have heard that the industrial farming of cows has contributed to a significant amount of pollution due to the methane gas they produce. Because of this, a conversation has begun on decreasing the consumption of red meat, beef in particular. This discussion also falls into the dairy industry.

In 2018 an estimated 876 million tonnes of milk were produced globally. The International Farm Comparison Network predicts that by 2030 the production of milk will rise and according to the managing director of the network, milk production will rise by 35% in the time between 2018 and 2030. The reasons behind this can be attributed to both the rising population and demand increases.

About 2.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions are from dairy production. There is a lot that goes into dairy production, starting all the way at what we feed cows. An Iranian study3 found that the feed production stage contributed to the majority of energy consumption for producing pasteurized milk. Cattle feed requires energy and water resources. When produced at the industrial level, it can also strip the land of biodiversity.

About 2.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions are from dairy production. There is a lot that goes into dairy production, starting all the way at what we feed cows. An Iranian study3 found that the feed production stage contributed to the majority of energy consumption for producing pasteurized milk. Cattle feed requires energy and water resources. When produced at the industrial level, it can also strip the land of biodiversity.

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Comparing Raw Milk and Pasteurized Milk

The controversial debate on pasteurized milk versus raw milk is easily found after a quick search online. From a nutritional perspective, there aren't any proven differences between the two. Pasteurized milk provides all the same nutrients as raw milk. In some cases, raw milk can pose a bigger risk for anyone with a weaker immune system, including kids and pregnant people. Especially when a cow is sick, those microorganisms can be present in its milk. Where health is concerned, it's best for each person to make a choice that is individualized to their own body's needs. On an environmental level, both kinds of dairy milk require a hefty amount of feed production, cost, and energy when it comes to raising cattle and storing the milk.

The Downfalls of Cow Milk

An increase in dairy production means the burden on Earth's natural resources like fresh water and soil will also increase. Improper management of manure and fertilizers can tarnish surrounding waters, and unsustainable farming methods can quickly deplete the planet of biodiverse lands.

The World Wildlife Fund4 reports that 144 gallons of water are required to produce just one gallon of milk in the United States. The numbers may seem disproportionate, and that's because 93% of that water is solely for cultivating cattle feed.

144 gallons of water are required to produce just one gallon of milk in the United States.

The energy required for milk production is mainly from the heating and cooling processes required for both pasteurized and raw milk. While raw milk does not go through heating treatments, it still needs energy for refrigeration. There is also the energy that's required to transport milk to stores. In this regard, pasteurized milk may likely use a lot more energy in both its heating processes and transportation.

Because some states require raw milk to be sold locally at the farms they're produced at, it's reasonable to assume raw milk requires less energy. Even so, the numbers show that dairy's most significant impact comes from the upkeep and raising of cattle.

The Non-Dairy Milk Boom

The trend of milk alternatives may feel new, but some non-dairy milks have been around for centuries. Almond milk, for example, first appeared in The Forme of Cury, a recipe book from the 14th century. Soy milk originated in China and is estimated to have been around since the beginning of the Qing dynasty in the mid-1600s.

Other non-dairy beverages are much more recent, like oat milk, which was invented in 1994 by Swedish brothers Rickard and Bjorn Oeste. Despite the fact that these alternative options have existed for decades, there has been a substantial spike in their popularity in recent years. The market intelligence agency, Mintel5, found that non-dairy sales grew 61% between 2012 and 2017. At the time of the report, almond milk made up 64% of the market share, soy milk made up 13%, and coconut milk followed with 12%. There's also rice, hemp, banana, and cashew milk— to name a few more.

Non-dairy beverages give lactose intolerant and vegan consumers more options for their diet, and many of these milks are often incorporated into recipes where dairy milk is traditionally used. While some may opt for these alternatives because they're easier to digest, other consumers choose non-dairy milks because they believe them to be a healthier option overall.

However, there is still no definitive answer on whether cow milk or a milk alternative is the better choice for health. This is why it's important to pay attention to nutrition labels. They will often differ from brand to brand. When comparing the substitute milks against themselves, they do have varying levels of different nutrients. Soy milk has the most protein, coconut milk has the highest amount of fat, and oat milk is rich in carbohydrates. Cashew milk gets points for being one of the creamiest, which is why it's often used for non-dairy ice cream.

The Downfalls of Milk Alternatives

Because these milks are usually made by blending the main ingredient with water, there is concern about how much water is used in production. Almond milk, in particular, has the worst reputation when it comes to its water requirements. It's reported that it takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow a single almond. This is quite a contrast from the 144 gallons of water needed to produce a gallon of milk. Per liter, almond milk needs 17 times the amount of water in comparison to cow milk.

Nut milks and other substitutes appear to be a trend that's here to stay, and many companies have jumped on board. Profits are the main priority, and it comes at the expense of the environment. The demand for coconut milk has led to the expansion of palm forests, causing deforestation of the naturally growing trees and plants in Indonesia, India, and the Philippines. Because palm trees grow best in tropical locations, coconuts are mainly produced in these three countries and shipped across the world. Carbon emissions from exports are unsurprisingly high as a result.

Then there is rice milk, which produces the most greenhouse gasses of any non-dairy milk. Almond milk production also requires the work of bees to pollinate almond trees. Most almonds are grown in California, an already drought-ridden state and the need for pollination led to the death of 50 billion bees6 in just one winter alone. With that said, the most eco-friendly non-dairy milks are hazelnut, hemp, oat, and soy milk. Hazelnut trees can thrive off rainfall alone, hemp isolates carbon, and both soybeans and oats use little water.

Per liter, almond milk needs 17 times the amount of water in comparison to cow milk.

The Consumer's Choice

Choosing between milks may not be an easy decision for everyone. Dairy milk is a good source of protein, calcium, magnesium, potassium, Vitamin B12, riboflavin, and folate, and is fortified with vitamin D.

However; there are non-dairy milks with similar nutrients. Soy milk is the most similar to dairy milk in terms of its contents. Then there's almond milk that contains Vitamin E, omega-6 fatty acids, iron, calcium, potassium, and zinc. Not to mention, there are no saturated fats in almond milk. Whether someone purchases dairy milk or non-dairy milk is up to their specific needs.

In terms of the environment, it seems to be a toss-up on which milks are less harmful. Almond milk may demand more water resources, but cow milk creates more CO2 pollution. Despite the many varieties of milk, one thing remains true: purchasing locally is always the best bet. Buying locally means your food has used less gas emissions to get to you; in some cases, that means food that's less processed as well. Overall, sustainable consumption is a complex issue that will likely require multiple solutions.

Business Takeaways
  • Shoppers should buy locally to reduce their carbon footprint, regardless of the type of milk they buy.
  • Industrial cattle farming contributes to the bulk of environmental burdens caused by methane levels, water consumption, and fertilizer pollution.
  • Consumers should also try to choose brands that are making sustainable choices in production.
  • Some non-dairy milks also require large amounts of water, which might contribute to scarcity later down the line.