Today it’s a cow, tomorrow it’s…

CH_cow_2_croppedSoy, almond, hazelnut, rice, oat, hemp and coconut. These are just some of the plant names that can be seen written across products in front of a very familiar word –  milk. Plant milk is not milk in a traditional sense of the word. Plant “beverages” are called milk because they are used as replacements for the latter. People can so easily relate to the product, its purpose and possibility of use. 

Plant milk is produced from plant seeds. The procedure differs according to seed type. The first part in “milking” a plant is to collect its seeds. These are soaked, blended, strained and sometimes cooked. The final step in plant milk production is adding calcium, vitamins, and sugar to the liquid. Many people make their own plant milk at home, as the process itself is quite easy. [1][2]

Plant_milk_cartons,_September_2010The main difference between animal and plant milk is their nutritional value. Plant milk has more carbohydrates and less fat than animal milk. In addition, it has (apart from soy, coconut and hemp) less protein. They add sugar to some varieties to improve their taste but at the same time make the product less healthy. [3][4]

As mammals, milk is the first thing most of us get to eat in the period after our birth. Humans are most probably the only animals which consume milk of other species their entire life. [5] Not everybody can eat dairy products though. Some people cannot properly digest milk or are even allergic to it. If we browse the internet we can find arguments for and against milk consumption. Some dietitians, however, say that there is nothing wrong in including some of it in your diet, unless your health prevents you from doing so. [6]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMilk has become quite controversial due to the environmental impact of its production. Dairy production can consume large amounts of water and manure runoff from farms can pollute water sources. Dairy farms are a source of greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change and impact air quality. Cattle overgrazing, poor agricultural practices and deforestation to gain new agricultural land result in habitat loss and soil degradation. Last but not least, farm animals can be in a poor condition due to improper handling. All this, in combination with health, is also a reason why many cut down their dairy consumption and switch to plant based alternatives. Dairy farming can also be beneficial though – proper grazing management maintains cultural landscapes which ensure ecosystem services. [7]

A startup from USA strives to satisfy both those for and against milk consumption. They are developing an environmentally friendlier alternative – milk brewed in laboratories without using animals. Yeast bacteria are used to produce milk proteins which are later mixed with plant based fats and essential minerals. The company is still perfecting their product and aims to put their first “milk” on the shelves in 2017. Could this be the future of milk? [8]

Dairy farming is an old trade which is strongly embedded in some cultures and ensures livelihood to many people. It is therefore unlikely that we will completely cease to produce and consume animal milk anytime soon. 

By Aljaž Malek



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