Within supermarkets brimming with dairy alternatives, milk’s identity has become about as clear as heavy cream. Many products now labeled as milk come from plants, not animals, and a whirlwind of product variations has churned up confusion about the beverages’ nutritional value.
“I get this question all the time (when meeting) with my patients,” says Berit Young, registered dietitian nutritionist at the Center for Community Health, part of the University of Rochester Medical Center. Deciding which product to drink “really comes down to preference and if you have any food allergies and purpose of the milk,” she adds.
Another key consideration is how much fat and added sweetener a cow’s-milk substitute contains. Some brands of sweetened chocolate almond milk, for example, have up to 18 grams of sugar per cup.
“We get too much added sugar from our diet as it is,” says Maggie McHugh, senior nutritionist at Finger Lakes Eat Smart New York, part of a statewide initiative that connects SNAP participants with nutrition educators at Foodlink and Cornell Cooperative Extension offices across the region.
The locavore movement and concern over factory-farming practices, including injecting cows with hormones to make them produce more milk, have done their part to draw consumers to dairy alternatives and dairy products from other mammals, such as sheep and goats raised on small farms.
Still, the popularity of some mainstream dairy products has skyrocketed. Americans drink 42 percent less cow’s milk than they did in 1970, but eat nearly three times more cheese, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data analyzed by Pew Research Center. Yogurt also has become a fixture on the American table, rising from negligible levels of consumption in 1970 to almost 1.2 gallons per person in 2014—a 1,700 percent increase.
Consumers who turn away from cow’s milk because of lactose intolerance or another reason should focus on replacing the protein, calcium and Vitamin D it contains.
“If a consumer is not aware of that, then they could be possibly making the wrong decisions and then getting a lack of nutrition,” says McHugh, who works at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Wayne County.
Of the most widely available nondairy milks—soy, almond and rice—soy milk has the most protein, but some varieties are high in sugar, which has led to more unsweetened versions coming to the market. Almond milk, on the other hand, has minimal protein, but it “is rich in calcium, and it’s also a good source for the Vitamins A, D, and E,” Young says. Unsweetened almond milk has very few calories per cup, she adds.
For people with multiple food allergies, “rice is your go-to milk alternative,” McHugh says. “However, a drawback to rice milk is that it has very low to no protein at all.”
Other nondairy products now vying for cooler and shelf space at grocery stores include hemp milk, oat milk, pistachio milk and coconut milk, the last of which is low in protein and high in fat, Young says.
Though cows still rule the pasture in the United States, that is not the case elsewhere. When taking cow and water buffalo milk into account, India currently produces more milk than any other country and is home to 75 million dairy farms. Last fall, the Indian government rolled out a pilot program aimed at eliminating an infection caused by drinking raw milk, which remains a common practice in the country’s rural areas.
More American consumers in recent years have warmed up to dairy products that come from mammals other than cows but not necessarily in all forms. The domestic demand for goat cheese, for instance, far outweighs the demand for liquid goat’s milk, says Peter Snyder, president of the New York State Dairy Goat Breeders Association Inc.
Goats are somewhat misunderstood, Snyder adds.
“The misconceptions are that goats are smelly, unclean animals, while the total opposite is true,” he says. “Goats are very clean and fussy animals.”
People who are allergic to cow’s milk usually can consume goat’s milk without any issues, says Snyder, who began raising dairy goats in the 1970s and now maintains a hobby herd in Wyoming County.
Sheep’s milk is another alternative for people who can’t tolerate cow’s milk, says Cheryl Fillekes, owner of Mohawk Drumlin Creamery, a Montgomery County-based operation that produces three flavors of sheep’s milk yogurt.
Sheep’s milk has certain pluses from a sensory standpoint, Fillekes adds. Like goat’s milk, it is naturally homogenized, meaning that the cream does not separate and rise to the top as it does in cow’s milk.
“It makes a very beautifully textured yogurt, with a really nice flavor and a terrific mouthfeel,” says Fillekes. She inked a deal earlier this year that will bring the creamery’s yogurt, which is packaged in glass jars, to all Whole Foods stores in the Northeast.
Like goats, sheep are shrouded in a bit of mystery.
“If you say ‘sheep,’ people will hear ‘goat,’ and they’ll expect a kind of gamy undertone, a gamy flavor” that sheep’s milk does not have, Fillekes says.
Given that cow’s milk is a loss leader at U.S. grocery stores—meaning that it is sold at an artificially low price in order to stoke sales of more profitable goods—Mohawk Drumlin does not plan to produce liquid sheep’s milk.
“Most grocery stores do not make a penny on (cow’s) milk because people can easily compare the price of a gallon of milk,” Fillekes says. “And they actually decide which store to go to based on the price of milk.”
If the creamery did get into the business of liquid sheep’s milk, it would probably be $10 a quart, Fillekes notes.
“Nobody is going to pay that,” she says.
Sheila Livadas is a Rochester-area freelance writer.
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