Glasses of milk

Milk: sustainability vs nutrition – is it a trade off?

Sustainability has never been more important, with plastics having a devastating impact on wildlife and the environment. Most of us saw David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II where an albatross tried to feed plastic to their chick thinking it was food. However this raises a question, does going plastic free have to be a trade off with nutrition?

On Tuesday 1st September at 9pm BBC One aired War on Plastic – The Fight Goes On with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Anita Rani tackling prepackaged sandwiches, tea bags, fast food toy giveaways and helping a family go plastic free on a budget.

Like many of us the Oliver family from Berwick want to reduce the amount of plastic we use but shop on a budget. One item they purchased frequently was milk in plastic containers, but unfortunately switching to glass bottles from a milkman was not available. Instead they were advised to make their own ‘milk’ by soaking oats in water by a Sustainability Consultant but at no point was the difference in nutritional value between cow’s milk and oat milk addressed.

In recent years cow’s milk has received bad press for having a negative impact on the environment due to the greenhouse gases released during its production. However while this is true, and milk alternatives have never been more popular, these alternatives often cannot compete with the nutritional value of cow’s milk.

Cow’s milk is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals which are required throughout life. From rapid growth as children to maintaining bone density as adults, plus increased demands for nutrients during pregnancy and breastfeeding (BDA, 2016). The key nutrients found in cow’s milk include protein for growth and repair, calcium for bone development and maintenance, iodine for healthy skin and brain function, vitamin B12 for healthy red blood cell function, and vitamin B2 for energy release from food (BNF, 2019).

Registered Nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed recently compared popular alternative milks to whole cow’s milk, concluding that soya milk was the best choice providing similar protein but lower calories, carbohydrate and fat. Pea milk was also found to be a good choice providing similar protein but lower calories, carbohydrate and fat. Oat milk had higher carbohydrate than whole cow’s milk but lower calories, protein and fat. However coconut, almond, cashew and hemp milks all had lower calories, protein, carbohydrate and fat than whole cow’s milk.

Table below shows the average nutrients for cow’s milk and milk alternatives (adapted from SR Nutrition).

Per 100ml Skimmed Semi-skimmed Whole Soya Pea Oat Coconut Almond Cashew Hemp
Calories (kcal) 35 49 65 42 36 49 31 16 23 26
Protein (g) 3.6 3.6 3.4 3.2 3.2 0.6 0.4 0.5 0.6 0.6
Carbs        (g) 4.9 4.8 4.7 2.6* 1.5* 7.5 3.2* 0.7 2* 1*
Fat            (g) 0.1 1.7 3.6 2.0 1.9 1.7 1.7 1.2 1.3 2.3

*contains added sugar

There are plenty of reasons to switch to an alternative milk including cow’s milk allergy, lactose intolerance, animal welfare and sustainability. However this does not have to be at the cost of lower nutritional value. Professional bodies such as the British Dietetic Association and the British Nutrition Foundation, in addition to Registered Nutritionist Charlotte Stirling-Reed all recommend choosing alternative milks that are unsweetened and fortified with nutrients such as calcium, iodine, vitamin B12 and vitamin B2 to replace cow’s milk.

In conclusion, making more sustainable food choices does not have to compromise nutrition but it does require careful consideration if foods are being removed from the diet, especially for children.

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