In the flurry of dairy alternatives, from oat milk, almond, and now even potato-derived milks, have we lost sight of what’s important? Useful – and hugely popular – though such products are, especially for consumers with a dairy intolerance, they do little to actually tackle some of the ethical issues levied at cow milk. As farming practices improve, and the industry addresses and updates some of its more contentious production methods, we ask, is ethically-sourced dairy set to not only make a comeback, but become a super food?
Who knew? Really, who knew that you could milk a potato? Until Waitrose announced their predictions for food and drinks trends for 2022, certainly the vast majority of us didn’t. But there it was, tipped as a hot new trend, it was touted to be in demand for its low sugar and saturated fat content, as well as, you know, not actually being milk.
Consumers with – and without – dairy intolerances have increasingly moved away from cow’s milk in recent years, seeking instead alternatives that promise to be both more sustainably, and ethically produced, as well as lower in fat.
And though most brands add the vitamins naturally occurring in cow’s milk, such as calcium, vitamin D, riboflavin, and vitamin A, additional vitamins such as iron are often promised in products such as oat milk. Plant-based products in particular, are of course ‘having a moment’. But it’s a moment they’ve been having for several years now.
It’s not just oat and nuts that are being ‘milked’ in this growing movement. There’s now milk products sourced from everything from bananas, chia seeds, hemp, peas and barley. So, is anything set to change?
Changing consumption needs
According to data from global packaging company Amcor, most consumers of non-dairy milks actually flit between that and dairy; around 45% of consumers regularly choose both, with only 4% opting for plant-based only. Such data suggests that most consumers still want cow’s milk, or at least choose it for certain occasions and serves; after all, a good cup of tea just isn’t the same with oat milk.
When consumers do make the switch, data from Mintel suggests that one of the key reasons for choosing plant-based milks is their nutritional functionality. Whereas some brands add immunity boosting ingredients, and additional vitamins, according to 38% of plant-based milk drinkers its actually high protein claims that they’re looking for, with half of consumers wanting a higher protein content from their plant milks. Yet, this is an area in which dairy has them naturally beat. For example, one leading oat-based brand contains 1g of protein per 100ml, whereas cow’s milk contains 3g.
Other motivations that remain important, are sustainability. Research by IBM indicates that almost 60% of consumers are willing to change their shopping habits to reduce environmental impact. While a quarter of dairy consumers are interested in products that guarantee sustainable farming practices.
So, if nutrition and ethical production are the leading motivator when it comes to purchase, is cow’s milk set to make a return? There’s some brands that are beginning to prove that maybe so. Ethical dairy brands in the US and UK are leading a charge to set a new standard in milk production, delivering an all-natural cow’s milk, naturally high in nutrients. No, the repetition isn’t a mistake, we want you to know it’s all-natural, okay?
Scotland’s The Ethical Dairy uses what it describes as a pioneering new method of production, keeping cows and calves together for five months, instead of just days, allowing them to naturally wean. Though not great for yield - each calf consumes around a third of the milk its mum produces – its much better for the livestock’s welfare, meaning the farm has been able to reduce the amount of antibiotics it usually uses on its herd by 90%; good news for consumers looking for products to be as natural as possible.
In the US, Kind or Ahimsa milk is produced in a way that also allows cows and calves to remain together for longer. The purely grass-fed cattle are allowed to remain together as long as they like, usually for at least three months. There’s no forced pregnancies, use of growth hormones, and male calves are kept rather than being sent to the meat industry.
Better for the planet, better for you
As far as nutrition goes, organically farmed cow’s milk is said to have a higher concentration of vitamin E, iron, and an improved ratio of omega-3 (which has anti-inflammatory properties) and omega-6, said to be good for heart health. Cattle that consume more grass also produce milk with a higher amount of protein.
These slower, more natural farming practices, that in many ways mark a return to pre-industrial farming are obviously not suitable for mass production. But that’s the point. Dairy is best consumed in moderation, to enjoy its health benefits. Too much consumption can have an adverse effect on health. And that’s true for the planet too. Much of the rejection of cow’s milk has centred on the fact that consumers have begun to reject industrialised farming, from opting for organic products, to rejecting battery hen-produced eggs.
The rise of slower, more ethically produced cows milk seems to hold the answer then, for consumers looking to do good for the planet, while consuming products with the most functional benefits. And in a parallel to the drinks industry at large, more enlightened thinking about the role diary should have in our diets, means that consuming less, but consuming better quality looks to be the future. So, move over plant-based milks, cows milk may be set to make a very slow, very steady, and incredibly ethical comeback.
However, health credentials alone are not enough. One of the strengths of plant-based milks has been their ability to convey to consumers their individual health benefits. And that’s largely come down to strong work by creative branding design agencies, and bold, playful pack design that feels compelling, without being preachy. The challenge for emerging ethical dairy brands is to convey their free-range credentials, and their benefits, in a clear, appealing way entirely separate in visual identity from both plant-based products, and less ethical dairy, while also embracing eco-materials. Anything less, risks being lost among the flurry of yet more milk-alternatives.
Who wants to make a bet that parsnips will be the next milk-source? Anyone?
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