The truth about vegan milk – and why it’s not the healthy alternative it seems
It’s fashionable to say that dairy is scary, but soya, almond and oat substitutes are problematic in their own ways.
Mother Nature has gifted us few more complete foods than milk. Full of protein, calcium and good fats essential for cognitive development and health, it’s among the most nutrient-dense comestibles out there. Dairy is also threaded through our culture and heritage. It forms a backdrop to some of our literary classics, such as the work of the novelist Thomas Hardy.
At primary school, we were given small bottles of milk with a straw for a reason: namely, it’s good for us. But over the past three years or so, milk has come under attack from a small but vocal minority who claim it is bad for the planet and for our bodies, and offer us instead the most dubious fake imitations: “milk” made from almond, cashew, rice, oats, soy, coconut or hemp.
As someone who has investigated and reported on the truth about these imposter fake-milk products, I was gratified to see farmer Adam Henson, presenter of the BBC One programme Countryfile, hitting back this week, and pointing out that these trendy milks are “disastrous” for the environment.
Writing in the Radio Times, he argues: “If you’re drinking soya milk, that might have come from South America and caused deforestation, the destruction of species, the displacement of indigenous people… You’re better off drinking milk from a local dairy farm that’s been bottled there and delivered to your doorstep, where cows are wonderfully looked after and the family contributes to the local society and economy.”
He’s absolutely right, of course. But how has it come to this? Why are some people turning their backs on proper, healthy cows’ milk in favour of industrial, ultra-processed sludge that may be made from destructively farmed nuts? Nuts that have often been intensively cultivated in California, which is where most of the almonds used for milk are grown? It is said that 12 litres of water are required to grow one almond there. California’s aquifers – the rock and sediment that holds groundwater – are being depleted quicker than they can be refilled. In addition, there are the food miles racked up by these “environmentally friendly” products to consider. They inevitably exceed the food miles travelled by milk from your local farm.
Henson blames social media for encouraging a “knee-jerk” rejection of dairy produce. Indeed, certain influencers do have a lot to answer for. But they aren’t the only culprits. Popular Netflix documentaries such as What The Health (2017) and Cowspiracy (2014) have also played a big part in fuelling the vegan trend and suggesting that dairy is scary.
While soy milk has been a staple of health food shops since the Seventiess – a niche choice among a certain small population of vegans and those with dairy allergies – it’s only fairly recently that a slew of other alternatives have also hit the market, amid much fanfare and ideological rhetoric.
A small number of young, impressionable, well-meaning consumers – mostly metropolitan women – have fallen for it hook, line and sinker. They’ve been frightened by campaigns by groups like Extinction Rebellion, and the “environmental” push for veganism. Among a certain demographic, anti-livestock sentiment is fashionable.
These people are now running scared of dairy and turning to awful alternatives. But these, as Henson points out, can be highly problematic.
While small dairy farmers struggle to make a living, the profit margins on these fake milks are huge, because most of what they consist of is water – we’re talking between 85 and 95 per cent. This is then mixed with a small amount of the ingredient of which the “milk” is allegedly made. This ingredient comes in a processed form, and added to it and the water there will often be various chemical food additives, such as thickeners, emulsifiers, stabilisers – and synthetic flavourings. Factory-made vitamin and mineral powders may also be thrown in, to ape the nutrient-rich quality of real milk.
The end product will then be sold at five or six times the cost of cows’ milk, and hence is enormously profitable. But consumers are being conned into paying a premium for something that’s largely water designed to resemble milk.
Nutritionally speaking, no fake milk can come anywhere near to sharing the value of cows’ milk.
Yet some who drink it don’t seem to understand how ultra-processed it is. They can look at ready meals and flavoured crisps and recognise their ultra-processed character; but because fake milk looks white and healthy – and because they believe the simple mantra that livestock is murder and plants are good – they keep on buying the stuff.
They are falling for propaganda that claims all dairy farming is a problem. But those who spread this myth are tarring all dairy farmers with the same brush. The truth is not all cows’ milk is created equal. There’s a big difference between a small UK dairy farmer with 80 or so cows and good animal welfare practices, and an intensive, industrial, high tech dairy business in the US.
As with any food category, when buying milk, you need to choose wisely and well. It should come from free range cows that have been kept on grass and pasture-fed.
You only have to look at our climate and landscape to see we have plenty of grass. We’re hardly short of water, and our terrain is perfect for producing livestock. The biblical fat of our land is dairy: butter, cream and milk.
Walk into most trendy, urban cafes and look at the menu, and you’ll get the impression that hardly anyone is drinking real milk these days. Luckily, this is more reflective of coffee shops’ cynical efforts to appear on trend and progressive than to actual consumer behaviour.
Despite loud advertising campaigns that have tried to sell these spurious products as fashionably ethical – Oatly’s “Help Dad” campaign, for instance, which advocates browbeating men into drinking fake milk – the sales of milk alternatives remain mercifully static. Figures suggest the newer versions have eaten into the market not for cows’ milk, but rather for soy milk. They’re not consumed by anything approaching a majority.
Yes, oat milk does sell relatively well in coffee shops, due to the way it foams up, and the way some consumers may now be hooked on its sweet taste. But elsewhere the story is different. Across the country, sales of cows’ milk are, in fact, increasing.
Fake milk is a fashion. Like all fashions, it will pass. Cows’ milk sales were stubbornly buoyant in lockdown, with retail spend up 10 per cent in 2020. The genuinely ethical consumer understands that it’s better by far to spend their money on organic whole milk from a British farm, than something highly processed and sold in a container they may not even be able to recycle.
It seems insane to me that dairy farmers have to defend their produce against these ultra-processed, inferior imitations. But ideological Hampstead vegans will never win the eco milk wars. Henson speaks for sensible mainstream opinion, and we can only hope his words may have some cut-through to any deluded but wavering fake milk aficionado.
Yet we can’t leave this to chance, or to the occasional intervention by a BBC presenter. I want to see health ministers urging the public to avoid fake milk at all costs, and to follow where possible a broad, omnivorous diet of meat, fish, eggs, dairy, fruit and vegetables.
I fear that those who continue to stick to fake milk are storing up future health problems. A growing body of research has already highlighted the potential ill-effects vegans can ultimately suffer.
But the tide is turning now. Milk-shaming, I hope, will wane. The anti-milk brigade have had their moment. But the rest of us know what is best.
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