A lot of people are unsure of what kind of milk to go for these days. Some are moving away from dairy and switching to plant-based milks for ethical and/or health reasons. So I’m going to take a look at some factors to consider when choosing (or making) milk. First, let’s take a look at cow’s milk.
Before that, I want to mention that looking at the social and environmental impact of our actions is not always easy (especially reading about animal welfare issues). In order to look at this stuff on a daily basis, I think it’s necessary to maintain an objective, scientific frame of mind. Think of it as psychological protection against getting worn out or depressed. When communicating on an issue, I find that negative imagery and emotive language often puts people off – many will feel overwhelmed or disregard the information as biased reporting. Of course, it’s OK to get angry or sad sometimes. Even Spock had emotional moments:
Just try to steer clear of despair:
Ethics of dairy milk
Female mammals produce milk after giving birth. On dairy farms, calves are separated from their mothers after birth (to varying degrees and with various fates) so that the mothers’ milk can be harvested. You probably knew that, but it’s a fact that we sometimes forget to keep in mind when we drink milk or eat dairy products. To me, that separation is a key argument for adopting a fully vegan diet (over a vegetarian diet). The other main argument, for me, is that male calves are normally “sold for beef” (I quoted that euphemism for Sociolinguini).
There is a whole range of diets from completely indiscriminate to fully vegan. But I think it’s important to recognize that any steps towards improving animal welfare (and the environment) are welcome. This could be an omnivore who makes an effort to choose pasture-raised meat and more sustainable fish. Or a vegetarian who decides to cut down on dairy, or to be more discriminate about where the dairy products come from.
A look at the missteps over the years should leave you in no doubt that conventional, industrial-scale animal farming, including dairy, has issues. The practice of feeding cow remains to other cows (who are herbivorous) led to the tragedy of BSE (“mad cow disease”). Treating cows with bovine growth hormone to increase productivity led to concerns over animal health (mastitis and “reduced body condition”) and has now been banned in many countries (not the US, though). The overuse of antibiotics is more common on pig and chicken farms but antibiotics have also been known to show up in milk.
Organic dairy is better for animal welfare
Be aware that organic certification for dairy is not just about pesticides – it also specifies several conditions that relate to animal welfare. For example, the guidelines for organic dairy farms by the USDA stipulate that:
All ruminant livestock must be provided pasture throughout the entire grazing season for the geographical region, which shall be not less than 120 days per calendar year.
Looking at the list of prohibited practices also gives you an idea of the kinds of things that might take place on a conventional, industrial-scale dairy farm:
Prohibited by the USDA on organic farms:
- Use of animal drugs, including hormones, to promote growth
- Plastic pellets for roughage
- Urea or manure added to feed or in feed formulas
- Administering any animal drug in the absence of illness
- Animals confined or tethered in such a way that prevents them from lying down, standing up, fully extending its limbs and moving about freely
In several countries, including Norway, Sweden, Germany, and the US, a high percentage of cows are housed in tie-stalls (sometimes permanently, and in other cases they are given breaks where they can socialize in a paddock or pasture).
So, if buying dairy products, there are good reasons to choose organic. There are also different levels of quality and animal welfare within the category of organic farms. The Cornucopia Institute has rated organic dairy farms in the US, and you can probably find similar guides in your area, but it’s also good to do some research of your own.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, Strauss is widely considered to be one of the best Creameries when it comes to animal welfare standards. They also reuse their glass milk bottles, thanks to a hefty $2 deposit that makes sure customers don’t forget to return them.
Hazelnut: the best plant-based milk?
I’ve tried many types of plant-based milk over the years and hadn’t come across one that works well in coffee – taste, texture, or separation/coagulation are the usual issues. That was until I came across hazelnut milk! A new café opened up nearby and the owner gave me a sample of their hazelnut milk, which is made in-house. You can read my green star review of Polaris café here (4/5 Green Stars). The milk was nice and creamy, didn’t separate out, and most importantly it didn’t obliterate the flavor of the coffee. I decided to try making my own last week. It’s quite easy and the end result was great 🙂
Recipe for hazelnut milk
1 cup hazelnuts (165 grams; 0.36 lb)
3 cups water (750 mL)
Water for soaking, including a pinch of salt and dash of vinegar (optional).
- Soak the hazelnuts overnight in a bowl of water to which you can (optionally) add a pinch of salt and a dash of vinegar (such as cider apple vinegar). This overnight soak activates metabolism in the nuts, increasing nutritional benefits, and also removes phytic acid (which can bind minerals and make them unavailable to us).
- Chop the nuts in a blender for around 30 seconds, starting on a lower speed and working up. (Make sure your blender can handle nuts! Mine has a chopping bowl with a different blade for this purpose.)
- Add the three cups of water and blend this with the chopped nuts for about a minute.
- Pass the mixture through a “nut bag” or some muslin. If you have a nylon or cotton bag lying around it may work as a nut bag. Squeeze the pulp to press out all remaining milk. Store the milk the fridge (mine was still fine after a week). The nut pulp can be put to various uses, from muffins to burgers to a Pâté-like spread.
Hazelnut milk is one of the more expensive milks to make – cheaper options include peas, rice, and even oats – but it was still pretty reasonable. With hazelnuts (from Oregon) costing around $8 per lb., it ended up costing around $2.70 to make 750 mL of milk from one cup of hazelnuts. I’ve read that homemade almond milk is much better than store-bought, so I may try that next, but I prefer the idea of using hazelnuts. Hazelnut trees can be grown on hilly or “marginal” land that’s not useful for conventional agriculture, will produce nuts for decades (even a century) and require few agricultural inputs.
In part 2, I’ll look into the social and environmental impact of various plant-based milks.