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Powered by Plants: Milk industry is on life support

Oatly vegan ice cream is available at Target, Fred Meyer, Natural Grocers and Rosauers with Huckleberry’s Natural Markets.  (Courtesy)
Oatly vegan ice cream is available at Target, Fred Meyer, Natural Grocers and Rosauers with Huckleberry’s Natural Markets. (Courtesy)
By Jonathan Glover For The Spokesman-Review

When’s the last time you walked the milk aisle at your local grocery store and looked? I mean really looked.

Odds are, you’ll find just as many white liquids made from plants as you will from cows. Odds are, they’re likely to have the same quantity and proportions of nutrients, perhaps less sugar and fat. Odds are, they’ll come in all sorts of flavors. They might even taste better.

For more than a decade, plant milk (or “beverage,” as the milk industry would like you to say) has – little by little – been encroaching on baby cow’s food, threatening to send it into total irrelevance. The past few years have shown us this trend isn’t going away. The bottom is falling out, maybe for good.

In 2020, several of America’s largest milk producers filed for bankruptcy. While the downfall can be attributed to numerous factors – an increasingly competitive global supply and demand, a declining U.S. birth rate, to name a few – it would be impossible to tell the whole story without mentioning that consumers have simply stopped drinking as much milk.

At the same time, vegan milk now accounts for about 13% of dollar sales of retail milk, with about 37% of households purchasing the product, according to SPINS market data.

So why are consumers suddenly so vegan-friendly? I suspect it has little to do with the alternative and more to do with milk itself.

Since humans started drinking it 6,000 or so years ago, we’ve known it’s not entirely natural. For one, it’s made for cows, not for us. But at least back then, it was likely the excess that went to humans, not the entire udder.

But now, like much of animal agriculture, it’s devoid of compassion and humanity. Today, we impregnate the animals en masse once a year, forcefully separate them from their newborn calves and then siphon the liquid away.

Once the cow can no longer produce enough, it’s no longer financially justifiable to keep it. It goes to the slaughterhouse, as do the male offspring of the dairy cow, according to several studies on factory farming. If the baby is a female, they get the honor of making milk first before being killed for consumption – about 15 years before they’d die of natural causes.

In order to ensure the cows are making as much milk as possible, we pump them to the brim with bovine-growth hormones approved by the FDA. They pass those hormones to us, just as a pregnant woman would a prescription drug to her child. The FDA considers the hormones safe to eat.

Then there’s the heath factor. For decades, Americans were taught the calcium in milk helps strengthen bones and prevent osteoporosis. That’s probably why you drank a carton of it with every meal in school and why the hilariously atrocious food pyramid recommended you have two to three servings of dairy every day.

Of course, the science on milk’s calcium is nowhere near conclusive, according to a 2016 study. Some studies have found drinking milk can lead to osteoporosis, not the opposite.

Finally, there’s lactose intolerance, a condition that was once considered a disorder. Now, it’s pretty normal, according to several studies. They show many adults lose the ability to digest lactose. When we continue to consume it, our guts react with bloating, cramps, diarrhea and gas.

So why do so many people lack the ability to process lactose? According to one evolutionary geneticist at University College London in the U.K, “we don’t know.”

That’s all to say, there are multiple reasons why we are and should be cutting back on milk. Cheese? That’s another story. Americans today eat more than three times as much cheese as they did in 1975, according to USDA data. And maybe that’s because it’s as addictive as some drugs.

I realize giving up milk-based products can be difficult – especially as milk and milk powder are found in pretty everything – but giving up traditional Big Dairy isn’t.

For my money, the following dairy-free alternatives are not only better than their lactose counterpart in every conceivable way, they’re also cruelty-free and don’t require a birth and a death to produce.

Vegan ice cream

These days, you can find a vegan ice cream made of pretty much anything – rice, almonds, soy, oats and more.

While they all have their distinct flavor (unsurprisingly, a coconut-based ice cream is going to taste heavily of coconut), the most convincingly smooth and milk-like dairy alternative is oat milk ice cream.

And the best oat milk ice cream readily available is the Oatly brand frozen dessert. You can find it in several flavors, including vanilla, strawberry, chocolate and coffee. I’m a sucker for anything coffee flavor, but you can’t go wrong with any of these.

Where can I find it? Target, Fred Meyer, Natural Grocers and Rosauers with Huckleberry’s Natural Markets.

Vegan coffee creamer

I’m going to stay firmly in the oat milk camp on this one, too. While vegan coffee creamer has been a thing for about a decade (not to mention you can simply add plant-based milk to your coffee, if you prefer), it wasn’t until very recently that it’s exploded in popularity.

Now, just about every major creamer brand – including Starbucks – has a dairy-free alternative in all sorts of flavors.

I tend to take my coffee with plenty of cream and sugar, which is why Silk’s Oat Yeah brand oatmeal cookie creamer is my favorite.

Where can I find it? Target, Safeway

Vegan milk

I don’t drink vegan milk directly from a carton, but if I did, I would have to say my favorite variety is rice milk. It tends to have no added sugars, and while, yes, it does taste like rice, it’s not overpowering.

While you can find a good rice milk just about anywhere, my favorite is Costco’s Kirkland Signature rice milk, which you can buy in packs of 12.

It’s shelf stable, lasts about a year before going bad and makes a great addition to a bowl of cereal or protein shake.

Where can I find it? Costco

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