Scary dairy and silly moos

On the shelves of Whole Foods, a vast and vastly expensive American supermarket in west London, you will find 14 different types of cow-free milk. There are cartons of soya, almond, macadamia, rice, coconut, cashew, spelt, oat, flax, barley, quinoa, hazelnut, buffalo and goat’s milks.

Other than the final two, none of these is strictly speaking ‘milk’. The rest are made by soaking a nut, seed or grain in filtered water and then straining the liquid to make a drink of greater or lesser palatability. Anyone used to full-fat Jersey cow’s milk would find the quinoa stuff thin indeed.

But the market for non-dairy milks is booming. In 2011, 36 million litres of milk alternatives were sold in the UK, according to retail analysts Mintel. In 2013, it was 92 million litres — a 155 per cent increase. One in five UK households now buys some sort of non-dairy milk for health or lifestyle reasons.

Marks & Spencer last year launched coconut, rice and oat milks, having introduced soya milk in 2010. They now sell around 70,000 litres of these milk alternatives each week.

Starbucks introduced soya milk to its cafés in 1997, but has been slow to expand its offering. A Facebook petition group demands, ‘Ask Starbucks for more non-dairy milk alternatives.’

In Britain we now spend £150.6 million a year on these products, but are we right to avoid cow’s milk? Are we really suffering from a mass intolerance to the white stuff or is the nation labouring under a collective dairy delusion?

There is widespread concern that modern man struggles to digest lactose — the sugar present in cow’s milk — and that drinking milk causes digestive discomfort.

In 2007 a study from University College London was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It argued that analysis of human remains revealed that no European adults could digest milk during the Neolithic period — roughly
10,200 to 4,500 bc.

The paper’s authors explained that early man went on to develop a gene, producing the digestive enzyme lactase, which allowed the body to break down the lactose sugars in milk. This, they argued, showed evolution in action.

It is estimated that 90 per cent of modern northern Europeans have this gene. The other 10 per cent, however, may experience uncomfortable symptoms after drinking milk, such as bloating, abdominal pains or an upset stomach. They may find that milk exacerbates Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).

In parts of the world where milk has not been widely drunk, such as China, south-east Asia and some parts of Latin America, lactose intolerance is far more prevalent.

Mark Thomas, Professor of Evolutionary Genetics at UCL, explained, ‘The ability to drink milk is the most advantageous trait that’s evolved in Europeans in the recent past… [it] gave some early Europeans a big survival advantage.’

Cow’s milk — nutritious and, unlike natural water sources, uncontaminated with parasites — may have allowed generations of Europeans to thrive, but it has in recent years acquired a bad press. Dieticians, nutritionists, beauty journalists and celebrity chefs line up to tell us we would do better not to drink our daily pinta.

Calgary Avansino, a former beauty editor at Vogue, writes for the Sunday supplements on her wheat- and dairy-free diet. She favours almond milk and coconut water. Meanwhile, in an interview to promote her gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free cookbook It’s All Good, actress turned health guru Gwyneth Paltrow said, ‘Everyone in my family is intolerant to gluten and cow dairy.’

They’re all nuts… soy, coconut and rice milk isn’t milk at all,  and lacks its benefits
They’re all nuts… soy, coconut and rice milk isn’t milk at all, and lacks its benefits

The morning I sat down to write this article, an email appeared in my inbox from a food blogger with the subject line: ‘Make your own pumpkin nut milk.’

Even the greedily carnivorous chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has had a change of heart in his new book River Cottage Light & Easy – a collection of wheat- and dairy-free recipes.

Is milk really so very bad for us?

Dr John Briffa, a practising doctor specialising in nutrition, reiterates that 90 per cent of northern Europeans — a category into which many Britons fall — can tolerate milk. ‘Spectator readers,’ he stresses, ‘can probably digest lactose quite well.’

He points out that most adults drink relatively little milk and that a splash in a cup of tea won’t do much harm. He recommends yogurts and cheeses as easier to digest, because in the fermentation process some of the lactose is broken down.

He acknowledges, however, that in some patients — and here may lie the 10 per cent — eliminating milk and milk products can clear up unwanted digestive symptoms.

And what about the argument that the calcium in milk builds strong bones? Can cashew milk offer the same benefits?

Dr Briffa says that calcium is only one contributor to bone health and that we often overlook the importance of Vitamin D in bone strength.

Cumbrian GP Dr Angus Ross, however, worries that by going dairy-free, patients, particularly women, are risking brittle bone diseases like osteomalacia and osteoporosis.

‘It is wrong,’ he says, ‘for TV chefs to encourage people to omit particular food groups from their diet with no good reason.’ He is wary about faddy cookbooks, particularly those written by celebrities, which encourage elimination diets.

And it’s not just bone health. One study, published in the Lancet in 2011, found that of 700 teenage girls surveyed across
the UK, 70 per cent of them suffered iodine deficiency. The study found that girls who drank no milk at all had the lowest levels of iodine — particularly important for breast and ovary development.

So, is lactose intolerance a widespread problem? ‘Certainly not in Cumbria,’ says Dr Ross.

Manufacturers of dairy-free milks have a vested interest in persuading you that you are among the unlucky 10 per cent who cannot digest lactose, rather than the 90 per cent who can drink hot chocolate and eat ice cream with no ill effects.

Farming correspondent Graham Harvey regrets what has happened to milk — particularly milk production — in this country. He is convinced we would be better drinking real, raw, unpasteurised milk. This tends to be easier to digest because the enzymes present in raw milk — which are destroyed in the heat-treating pasteurisation process — help the human body to digest lactose.

He regularly drives 30 miles across the Somerset Levels to buy the real thing straight from a farmer. If you live in town, there are farms like Emma’s Organic Dairy in Lancashire, which will courier creamy pints from grass-fed cows to your doorstep.

There’s a lovely anecdote in the memoirs of Deborah Devonshire about the cook at Chatsworth, who was liberal with double cream. When warned about the health risks, the doughty cook replied: ‘They sell skimmed milk in my supermarket but I couldn’t look a cow in the face if I bought that.’

‘Excellent woman,’ concluded Debo. I imagine the cook would have felt even more strongly about spelt milk.

Unless you have very strong reasons to believe you are among the unfortunate 10 per cent who cannot tolerate cow’s milk, why deny yourself the pleasure of the real stuff for a meagre quinoa substitute?