In the UK, dairy is consumed on a daily basis: a staple food group in many people’s diets. Although this is starting to change, milk and dairy products are not challenged as much as they probably should be; milk can be found in so many foods we consume every day without us even realising it.
When we talk about dairy, we are referring to milk or products containing milk, produced mainly by cows and goats. The dairy products include butter, yoghurt, cream and cheese. These products and their variations go through many processes including pasteurization, fermentation and churning to create the different consistencies of dairy and remove bacteria.
The consumption of milk, in all forms: whole, semi-skimmed or skimmed, according to one report in 2016, is declining but, due to the belief that dairy products are the best source of calcium, the United Kingdom still remains one of the highest consumers of milk in the world.
Do We Need Dairy?
Interestingly, the majority of East and South East Asia and parts of central Africa are the only areas of the world who do not consume milk yet show the lowest rates of osteoporosis, the disease that causes out bones to weaken and become brittle.
However, despite this information, the old age question remains, where can we get our calcium if we do not consume milk? Where can we get the essential nutrients for good health and, more importantly, healthy bones?
Chickpeas, spinach, almonds, kiwis, passionfruit and chia seeds are just some examples of foods that contain calcium with many rivalling the calcium content of milk. So the answer is no: we do not need to consume milk or any dairy products to obtain the right quantities of calcium.
Nuts and seeds are great sources of calcium and can be a nutritious snack; a dietary recommendation from everyday nutritionists.
That being said, dairy foods come in a variety of forms: cheese, yoghurt, butter and cream as well as food containing these ingredients such as cakes, biscuits, pizza and pastry are all dairy products. Although these are seen as very normal food products, often consumed daily by many, they can make avoiding dairy harder than expected.
The best option is to eat less processed foods which automatically helps limit dairy intake and cuts calories. Natural and animal free foods are generally low in fat (saturated fat) and higher in nutrients.
Lactose and milk powder are also used in other, less assuming foods acting as fillers and additives for longer shelf life, such as cereals, crisps and sauces.
This brings us onto another element of dairy consumption.
Dairy Intolerance and Milk Allergy
Lactose intolerance is one of the more well-known consequences of dairy consumption. If someone is lactose intolerant, it means the body cannot digest lactose because the it does not produce enough lactase, which breaks lactose down into two sugars called glucose and galactose. This lack of lactase causes digestive problems such as bloating, stomach cramps, nausea and diarrhoea. Not a nice experience for anyone and perhaps one indicator of why we should not consume cow’s milk as regularly as we do.
However, despite lactose intolerance becoming a common and prevalent illness that could help us in the decision to ditch dairy altogether, there is instead a full range of lactose-free dairy products on our supermarket shelves. These products are not only more expensive to buy than average dairy products but they are also unnecessary for our health.
Less well known is the fact that many people are allergic to dairy, suffering from mild symptoms such as hives, vomiting and diarrhoea and, in extreme cases, anaphylactic shock. Although both an allergy and an intolerance can cause uncomfortable and painful symptoms, an allergy can be life-threatening caused by the protein found in milk and needs to be taken very seriously.
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The decision to ditch dairy is a personal one and, in the UK, consuming milk has become so ingrained in our everyday habits, for some, living without dairy can seem impossible. We take it in our tea, on our cereal, and spread on our toast. It is found in all our favourite biscuits and cakes and even in our favourite pack of crisps.
So how do avoid it and what are the alternatives?
In terms of replacing milk, there are now a variety of choices available to us. There is soya, hemp, coconut, almond, and oat to name a few.
This is not to say making the switch is an easy one, adapting to the different tastes does take time especially if we have consumed milk all our lives. It is best to find the right alternative that suits personal taste. It is also a good idea to test the different varieties of milk on cereal, and in the variety of tea we drink to see which one works best.
For example, depending on how we drink our coffee, almond milk and soya milk are great for frothing up lattes and cappuccinos, whereas adding soya or oat milk into our cup before adding an English breakfast tea prevents cuddling, and makes a great brew.
Transitioning is all about trial an error but there is the right alternative out there for everyone. And, if we are lucky, old un-serving traditions could transcend into new, healthier ones. Tea drinking in the average UK home could receive a total makeover!
Yoghurt can be replaced by soya, coconut or even nut variations, and butter can be swapped for plant-based varieties, too.
Harder to replace are those everyday luxury items we buy in the UK, such as biscuits, chocolate, cakes and ice-cream. Although replacements cannot yet be found in many convenience or local stores, larger supermarkets are starting stock more dairy-free options and of course, there are more specialised shops if you are lucky enough to live close to one.
Most dark chocolate contains soya derivatives instead of dairy, it is just a matter of checking the ingredients. There are many plant-based supermarkets starting to appear across the UK, and these stores carry many of the luxury items we have become used to just without the dairy.
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There is also the option to bake our own treats and use nut butter or certain oils to replace butter: it is not surprising to find out that these alternative ingredients are delicious in baked foods. A recent episode of the The Great British Bake off featured a variety of treats that could be made with eggs and dairy.
Last but by no means least, is the issue of cheese. Cheese is most the common complaint when it comes to avoiding dairy. Many people believe that they cannot live without cheese. This belief is mainly because it contains a high concentration of casein created through the cheese making process. Casein contains has fragments of what is called casomorphins (morphine compounds). This can make cheese very addictive, making it very hard to give up.
However, the taste of cheese is hard to replace and although there are many alternatives out there, it is hard to convince cheese lovers to ditch it altogether. If this is the case and cheese is the last thing to go, it is a good idea to just to limit cheese where possible. Many people find that once they have transitioned to milk alternatives, after time, cheese starts to taste unnatural and strange. It is worth taking time to break habits to become healthier in the long run.
Calcium is a nutrient our body needs and with more and more research becoming available, people are opting to avoid dairy as it no longer known to be the best source. It is not only a factor relating to our health but also a factor for dairy cows and the planet. If we can avoid suffering and become healthier by doing so, there are no strong reasons why we can’t consider alternatives.
It is a personal choice but it is important to know that despite dairy being on the government's Eatwell Guide as a food group, it is not necessary to consume. The Guide can only serve as the basis for our nutrition with the hope that more up to date research will mean it becomes more accurate.
Calcium does not have to be dairy. The more people make the switch, the more convenient and cheaper alternatives will become so that everyone can afford to buy them.
Want to learn more about your food groups...?
Read about carbohydrates.
Read about protein.
Read about fat.
Read about fruit and vegetables.