The role of dairy and plant based alternative in sustainable diets

Last changed: 28 February 2019

Our dietary patterns affect the environment and our health. In recent years, both the community debate and the research have highlighted the environmental impact of animal production. There has been a lot of focus on meat. But how about milk?

Our dietary patterns impact upon the environment, as well as on our health. Recent years have seen civil society and the academic community alike paying particular attention to the environmental impact of livestock production and associated consumption. So far, most of the focus has been on meat. The high climate impacts of ruminant production have been highlighted, as has the association between diets high in red and processed meat and non communicable diseases.  Researchers and NGOs alike have argued that we need to shift towards diets that contain less meat, and more plant based products. So far, considerably less attention has been paid to dairy products, even though these are foods of ruminant origin, and as such raise similar (although not identical) environmental concerns. The reasons for this are likely to be twofold. First there is robust evidence that the consumption of dairy products is associated with positive health outcomes. Second dairy foods are arguably even more culturally embedded in Western diets than meat; lacto-vegetarians and meat reducers are increasingly accommodated in western society while veganism is viewed as  more extreme.

This said, there is growing public interest in diets that are milk-free (although not necessarily meat- free), spurred by concerns about lactose intolerance and food fashions. In response, the last few years have witnessed a massive growth in the availability and uptake of dairy milk alternatives, manufactured from soy, rice, nuts, oats and even hemp. These products are aimed at vegans, the lactose intolerant and others who want to avoid milk for various reasons.  Some companies are also positioning these substitutes as more environmentally sustainable than milk. The nutritional profile of these products differ, however, from milk. The protein content of all plant based milk alternatives except soy is low and in all cases the calcium and micronutrient content is lower than in dairy milk.

In short, there is a need for more research to understand and better compare the nutritional and environmental impacts of both dairy and dairy-alternative milk consumption.

Ultimately the question that we want to answer is this: ‘under what dietary circumstances does dairy milk consumption make optimal environmental and nutritional sense and under what circumstances do alternatives work better?  ‘Optimal’ is defined here as meeting (but not unnecessarily exceeding) nutritional requirements at least environmental cost.

In this half-year long project we

  1. perform a literature review to summarise the relevant research that has been done so far in this area and
  2. develop a research roadmap to be able to answer the the question above.

Project manager: Elin Röös

Project members: Tara Garnett, FCRN, Camilla Sjörs and Viktor Watz

The project is a joint project between SLU and the Food Climate Research Network at Oxford University

Funded by Danone/Alpro and SLU Future Food

Time: Nov 2017-June 2018


Contact, 018-67 23 47

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