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We all remember the iconic “Got Milk?” ad campaign. With its bevy of famous personalities wearing milk mustache and a series of catchy TV commercials (remember the “Who Shot Alexander Hamilton Radio Quiz?”), the campaign was an attempt to boost America’s average milk consumption per year. Year on year, since the 1970s, America’s milk consumption plummeted from one and a half cup per day to 0.8 cup per day in 2014. The Milk Processor Education Program (MilkPEP) in Washington, D.C.—monitored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture—has been funneling its resources towards the industry to revive milk’s popularity. However, inversely, there has been an increase in the consumption of plant-based, non-dairy alternatives such as soy, almond, and coconut milk. These non-dairy alternatives are showing to be better for overall gut health as emerging scientific evidence is demonstrating the negative link between human gut microbiota and dairy products which have the possibility of containing antibiotics in it.

The consumers’ growing interest in dairy-free alternatives and its relationship with the dip in the consumption of milk is an area worthy of more in-depth inquiry.

How Milk Found Its Way in our Pantry

Milk consumption is a relatively recent practice. Compared to butter and cheese, milk was considered fit only for infant consumption. Dairy products such as cheese and butter had a longer shelf life which made these products more suitable for general consumption. Milk, due to its short shelf life, poses challenges with storage and transportation. The farther the haul from the source farm, the higher the risk milk has of being contaminated. That is why news of high infant mortality rates required the dairy industries to develop systems like pasteurization to make milk safer for consumption.

The advent of pasteurization coincided with the growing interest in a holistic approach to health and well-being at the turn of the 20th century. In this era, the consumption of healthy and wholesome food was seen to contribute to the body’s overall health significantly. Incidentally, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg—an American nutritionist, health activist and inventor of the corn flakes—was at the heart of this movement.

People saw milk as a superfood, containing protein, calcium, carbohydrates and even fat. At the time of a growing movement towards a healthy lifestyle, milk was at the right place and at the right time.

People of all ages were encouraged to drink milk because it was a great source of calcium and protein. The prevailing claim was that milk helped promote growth, build strong bones, and support the body’s overall health. Milk was catapulted as one of the modern times’ basic and significant food items. Non-dairy alternatives were unheard of until only later on.

a photo quote of David Mark Hegsted in connection to the talk about dairy versus non-dairy alternatives or dairy-free alternatives
David Mark Hegsted, Retired Nutritional Scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston (1942 to 1980)

Shining the Spotlight on Milk: Myths, Hype, and Overpromised Benefits

The discovery of milk as a great source of calcium as well as the labeling of milk as a wholesome health drink were significant news for the dairy industry. Due to the increase in demand, the production of milk ramped up. In the U.S. alone, milk production was registered at about 9,000 million pounds in 1960.

However, the attitude towards milk consumption had taken a different direction when several studies about the undisclosed negative effects of milk overconsumption began to surface.

At the forefront of these researches was Harvard Nutritionist David Mark Hegsted. In one of his articles published in the Journal of Nutrition, he laid down his hypothesis that the population’s overexposure to calcium was actually causing the decrease in the amount of calcium that’s normally absorbed by the body. This finding was supported by a pattern of numerous osteoporosis cases in countries where people had significant exposure to calcium, such as the United States and Europe. In fact, according to a report titled, “Case-Control Study of Risk Factors for Hip Fractures in the Elderly” from the American Journal of Epidemiology in 1994, researchers concluded that  “Consumption of dairy products, particularly at age 20 years, was associated with an increased risk of hip fracture in old age.”

The Truth About Dairy: Should Drinking Milk be Part of Your Weight Loss Plan?

Another belief about milk that prevailed before was that drinking milk could help one lose weight. However, this belief was proven as a falsity by a Harvard study, which followed the diets of more than 100,000 nurses in a period of more than 30 years, counting how their diets were altered. Christopher Gardner, Ph.D., a Rehnborg Farquhar Professor at Stanford University School of Medicine notes, “…switching back and forth from whole-fat to 2-percent to 1-percent [milk] was not associated with changes in weight.”

Additionally, it was found that a higher intake of milk and dairy products were linked to increased risk of breast cancer, prostate cancer, ovarian cancer, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis. Even acne and ear infections were also linked to milk consumptions. And since more than half of the total population (65 percent to 75 percent) is lactose intolerant, a lot of people develop allergic reactions and experience constipation when drinking milk.  According to Gardner, “This myth [needing cow’s milk] goes way back to before the food pyramid when the National Dairy Council offered to provide nutrition material to schools for free. And in all those materials, they said that you need multiple servings of dairy every day for a healthy diet. That was never agreed on. A lot of people are lactose-intolerant, and you don’t need it.”

Thus, as negative effects of milk overconsumption become more apparent, consumers began looking for non-dairy alternatives to milk.

a photo quote of Joseph Keon in connection to the talk about dairy versus non-dairy alternatives or dairy-free alternatives
Joseph Keon, Ph.D., Author of “Whitewash: The Disturbing Truth about Cow’s Milk and Your Health”

Break Free Through Non-dairy Alternatives which Provide better Gut Health

Plant-based diets have been gaining a following in recent years. And sales of non-dairy alternatives have been growing steadily. In fact, sales for dairy-free alternatives such as almond, soy, and coconut milk have grown to a 61 percent increase since 2012. One reason for this is that non-dairy alternatives offer nutrients with lower calories, less fat and less sugar. Here is a closer look at some notably leading non-dairy alternatives available in the market.

  • Almond is the leading dairy-free alternative, which currently enjoys a 64 percent market share. This number makes almond milk as the top non-dairy alternative to cow’s milk. Most brands claim to be carrageenan-free and to use non-GMO Brands like Silk, Califia, Whole Foods and Target offer unsweetened, sweetened and flavored varieties.
  • Soy milk is made from soaked soybeans, ground and boiled in water. It has fatty acids, vitamins proteins and Soy milk is known to be beneficial in preventing diabetes and kidney diseases. As a non-dairy alternative, soy milk lowers the risk of certain cancers such as breast and prostate cancer. Ranker lists Silk, Whole Foods and West Soy as the top 3 soymilk brands.
  • Coconut milk has been attributed to three main health benefits—weight loss, heart health and robust immune system. Coconut milk contains medium-chain triglycerides that help break down glucose faster and lauric acid, which is known for its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. This dairy-free alternative lists Silk, Trader Joe’s and Thai Kitchen as consumer’s top brands.
  • Oat milk as a non-dairy alternative is good for lowering cholesterol levels. A reason for this is that oat milk is high in total fiber and beta-glucan. Beta-glucan binds with cholesterol and moves it to be flushed out of the system. Oat milk has been seeing promising growth lately. (For instance, Oatly, Swedish-based brand, has been making waves in the United States.) To date, there are about 2,000 coffee shops and 1,000 grocery stores now offering this dairy-free alternative.
  • Macadamia milk is another promising dairy-free alternative. Its heavyweight nutritional profile includes omega 3, omega 6, monounsaturated fats, vitamin B1, magnesium and manganese. The best part is that its taste comes close to the taste of Milkadamia is currently one of the leading macadamia milk brands available in the market.

Dairy-Free Alternatives in the Long Run for Healthier Gut Microbiota

While certain companies may not openly provide information about the positives or the negatives of consuming dairy-free alternatives to the general public, consumers have the influence to demand this information. Just as the world deserved the right to know about the studies of milk overconsumption then, further research on how non-dairy alternatives can impact people’s lives must be continued today—particularly, for the benefit of people who are departing from dairy products.

Indeed, in matters concerning people’s health and dairy-free alternatives nowadays, much can be explored in the industry. Nevertheless, since milk seems to be continually dethroned by non-dairy alternatives, we have yet to see how these alternatives will boldly impact the lives of people around the world.

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