Without milk, there would be no pancakes, bechamel sauce, a cup of poppy seeds, Belgian fries, or juices. But these are just a few of the milk-based recipes, and there’s plenty of milk needed for other things too, but there’s a bump: producing one liter of cow’s milk releases 3.2 kilograms of greenhouse gases, uses about 9 square feet of land, and consumes 630 liters of water. And that means, for the sake of the planet, we need to find eco-friendly alternatives to versatile milk.
But what is milk?
The creamy drink contains 13 essential nutrients, including muscle-building protein, immune-boosting vitamin A and zinc, plus calcium and bone-strengthening vitamin D – read on science newsat. According to its classical definition, milk is a fluid derived from the mammary gland of a female mammal. But Eva Turnberg, a food scientist at Lund University, focuses more on the chemical makeup of milk:
It is an emulsion that contains many small oil droplets dispersed in water.
This emulsifier gives milk its distinct creaminess and makes it an ideal vehicle for transferring nutrients, says David McClements, a food researcher at Amherst University in Massachusetts. Due to the duality of oil and water, milk contains water-soluble nutrients such as riboflavin, b12Oil-soluble vitamins and nutrients such as vitamins A and D.
And because the fat content breaks down into many oil droplets — not a single layer — human digestive enzymes respond well to it: the nutrients packed into the drops are easily and quickly absorbed.
Milk is a common drink and culinary ingredient all over the planet, so it must be produced in large quantities, which is very expensive. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the dairy sector generated 1.7 billion tons of greenhouse gases in 2015, which is 3 percent of total human emissions. Plant milk production – oats, almonds, rice and soy milk – produces only a third of these gases and uses less land and water. But even among them it is possible to distinguish: almond milk and rice milk have the highest water use.
Sales of herbal milk are steadily increasing due to lactose intolerance and environmentally conscious consumers. This is commendable, but despite being environmentally friendly, they do not provide the same nutrients. The closest thing to cow’s milk is soy milk, which has almost as much protein as the real thing, and that protein is similarly complete – it contains all the essential amino acids. However, other important nutrients are lacking.
Vitamin D and calcium – two elements that are especially important for growing children – are the hardest nutrients to get if we leave out dairy.
Most of the other important components in milk can be replaced by a healthy diet consisting of whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and lean meats.
Many herbal milk producers have begun fortifying their products with vitamin D and calcium, but the body’s ability to absorb these added nutrients has not been demonstrated. Plant-based milk may contain natural particles that prevent use. For example, oat and soy milk are rich in phytic acid, which binds calcium, iron, and zinc and reduces the body’s absorption of these nutrients.
Research is ongoing to help scientists better understand how the compounds in plant milk interact and how these interactions affect nutrient absorption.
(Cover Photo: Graeme Robertson/Getty Images)
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