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In defence of dairy

Milk alternatives beware: the dairy sector is fighting back. A report published today by the Dairy All-Party Parliamentary Group calls on the Department of Health to introduce a ‘3-a-day’ scheme for milk and dairy consumption.

“The UK must put dairy back on the menu,” the group of MPs concluded. “The introduction of a national 3-a-day programme for dairy would show the Government’s commitment to promoting a healthy lifestyle and balanced diet and bolstering consumption of our great dairy products, all the while supporting our resilient dairy industry.”

Dairy is an industry that, in the wake of plummeting prices and wafer-thin margins, has needed deep pockets and a thick skin. The marketing of dairy-free alternatives, like soya and almond milk, as environmentally friendly, nutritious alternatives, hasn’t helped.

The dairy-free market grew by more than 15% in 2014, according to Mintel. What’s more, 15% of UK consumers now avoid dairy or lactose.

But some of the claims are overly simplistic, the APPG has argued. “[…] the majority of plant-based alternatives do not have the nutrient richness of dairy products,” they noted. “Many types of soya drinks are generally sweetened with sucrose, glucose and fructose, which are all added or ‘free sugars’. Conversely, cow’s milk, only contains the natural sugar lactose.”

The environmental cost of plant-based drinks is “often misunderstood” too, the APPG claimed. The MPs cited almonds as an example: 80% of the nuts are grown in the US, including areas experiencing “severe water stress such as California”.

“I was quite surprised to see that so many misconceptions and myths about dairy still resist even the strongest science,” said APPG chair Heather Wheeler.

The report follows Footprint’s report last month highlighting how dairy-free could be the “next green thing”.

“We want to see food companies develop more climate-friendly products and menus,” Sue Dibb, the co-ordinator of the Eating Better campaign, explained. “In doing so, it’s important [they] look at the whole sustainability and nutrition profile, not just at greenhouse gas emissions.”

Ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry’s recently announced plans to launch a dairy-free range that will reportedly cut huge chunks out of the company’s carbon emissions. It’ll be using a blend of almond and coconut milk.

But to suggest this switch will result in a reduction in environmental impact is “too simplistic”, said Arla sustainability manager Anna-Karin Modin Edman when providing evidence to the APPG. There is a real risk of replacing dairy with nutrient-poor products, high in calories and with an important environmental cost, she added.