Has Britain's Relationship With Milk Gone Sour – And Is It Time We Made Up?

Should we love or loathe cow's milk?

Almond, cashew, coconut, oat, soy, and even pea: the list of plant-based milks available is ever-growing – and as our options increase, so too does the amount of people declaring they’ve ditched cow’s milk.

Why are they making the switch? When I asked people on Twitter, more than 40 converts replied, citing health, skincare, animal welfare and environmental concerns around cow’s milk. “It left me feeling bloated and gave me an upset stomach,” one said. “Since switching to oat milk, I feel so much better.”

Another said they were vegetarian, but felt like a “hypocrite” still having dairy, so went vegan and switched to almond, rice, and soy milk. And others simply preferred the taste of plant-based milks.

But away from the social media bubble, the national stats on dairy consumption tell a different story.

Are We Actually Ditching Milk?

The amount of milk we’re consuming per person has decreased in recent years, but only slightly, according to data the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) shared with HuffPost UK.

We’ve seen a loss of about three litres of milk per person, per annum, sold over the past three years – but due to population growth, the volume of milk we’re consuming as a nation has remained static. The amount of total dairy we’re consuming has actually grown by 4% in the past five years, so what’s going on?

The data could be reflective of our changing eating habits, says Susie Stannard, senior consumer insight analyst at AHDB. “People are buying more dairy alternatives but this tends to be alongside a dairy product,” she says – so for example, people might have an almond milk latte with a cheese and ham panini.

And although people are consuming milk on fewer occasions each week, when we do drink it, we go to town: “We haven’t seen volume loss,” Stannard adds. “We suspect this is because people are more likely to consume more milk in one go when they do have it – for example, in a latte or a smoothie, which have a lot more milk in than a cup of tea.”

So, Should We Be Cutting Out Cow’s Milk?

People cite cutting out cow’s milk for their health – but is there any truth in these benefits? Dr Frankie Phillips, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for The British Dietetic, says if you haven’t been diagnosed lactose intolerant, there’s no [health] benefit to ditching dairy products as your body is able to digest the lactose. “You will also get all of the other nutrients which are highly available in dairy products, including B vitamins, calcium and zinc,” he says.

In the UK, just 5% of the population are thought to be lactose intolerant, and it’s more commonly seen among Asian and black African populations than caucasians. But even if you are diagnosed, you don’t necessarily need to cut out dairy altogether. “Many people with lactose intolerance can still have cheese and yogurt as the lactose content is very low,” Dr Phillips explains. “Some people find it’s even fine to have a small amount of milk alongside a meal.”

The main risk of cutting out cow’s milk is finding another reliable way to get enough calcium, B vitamins, protein and iodine. “If you choose a plant-based milk, I’d always advise checking out the label,” she says. Plant-based milks can be laced with high quantities of sugar and salt. It’s best to look for milk substitutes that are fortified with vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium and, ideally, iodine too, she advises.

Ditching cow’s milk may not be the answer to your skin woes either, says Dr Emma Wedgeworth, consultant dermatologist and British Skin Foundation spokesperson. Cow’s milk is often blamed as the culprit for blemishes and rashes, she says, but it’s worth bearing in mind most skin conditions are multi-factorial. “Cow’s milk does not cause acne”, she tells me, but acknowledges there are some studies that have linked dairy intake to an increase in acne.

“Interestingly, some of the studies show that low fat or skimmed milk products are more associated with acne than full-fat dairy,” Wedgeworth explains. “However, the studies are very difficult to interpret and often don’t take into consideration other aspects of a dairy-containing diet, in particular the glycaemic load [a measure which looks at how food raises a person’s blood glucose levels]. Recent evidence has linked high-glycaemic index diets to an increased risk of acne.”

Is Ditching Cow’s Milk Best For The Environment?

Dr Phillips and Dr Wedgeworth agree you shouldn’t cut out cow’s milk for health reasons – unless specifically advised to by a medical professional – but for green-minded consumers, the answer is less clear cut.

“I started by switching to almond milk in tea to reduce dairy for the environment, but two years ago I realised I was doing it wrong – almond milk seems to be less eco-friendly than we thought,” one person told me on Twitter.

Clare Oxborrow, a food and farming expert at Friends of the Earth, says there are pros and cons to both cow’s milk and plant-based alternatives. “Dairy production has a big environmental footprint in terms of land use, water resources and methane emissions,” she says. “Cutting down on milk and cheese will reduce our impact on the planet, but there’s no simple switch that ticks all the environmental and social boxes.”

Where possible, Oxborrow says to go for options that can be grown closer to home, like oat milk – but many come packaged in Tetrapak cartons, which are tricky to recycle. If you’re sticking with cow’s milk, Oxborrow recommends choosing locally-produced products. “This will reduce some of the environmental impacts while also supporting local farmers and supporting good animal welfare,” she says.

“Whatever your choice of milk, you can look into local milk delivery options which may use and reuse glass bottles rather single-use cartons.”

Will We See A Future Without Cow’s Milk?

Despite the fact statistics indicate millennials are consuming less milk than older generations, Stannard isn’t convinced this will lead to reduced milk consumption in the future. “If you look back in history, younger consumers have always had less milk than older consumers and that’s probably a factor of life stage,” she says.

“Younger people tend to have fewer hot drinks, they’re drinking fewer cups of tea, they’re in their house less than older people, so they’re just consuming less overall. But what we do tend to see is people change their behaviour.”

As the current millennial generation get older and have children, Stannard predicts they’ll revert to the behaviour of their parents and their household consumption of milk will increase. She also doesn’t think the rise of veganism will slow down cow’s milk sales significantly, as data suggests only 0.5% of the population are following a complete plant-based diet.

And – an important final note – although millennials eat less dairy than most consumers, they eat 4% more cheese than everyone else. We may care about animals and the planet, but our love of mozzarella knows no bounds.