Should you give up dairy?

Nedahl Stelio
The merits of dairy products have become a topic of hot debate.
The merits of dairy products have become a topic of hot debate. Photo: Istock

You'd be forgiven for thinking that dairy was sinful. To be cast aside, poured down the sink and forgotten it ever existed.

"We're the only animals who continue to drink milk into our adult years," say the critics. "We're the only mammals to drink the milk of a different species," say the naysayers. And according to the Paleo followers, "In the strict Paleo sense, dairy of any form was not consumed in the Palaeolithic Era, other than human milk in infancy of course. It just wasn't very practical to milk wild game."

Mylk taste test

Popular alternative milks are subjected to the discerning taste buds of a gelati maker, a barista, a sommelier and a chef.

So began the rise of "mylk". Yes, with a "y". It's a term adopted by the alternative milk industry, which is growing in leaps and bounds as I type. In fact, by the time I finish this sentence, there might just be another hip cafe opening that doesn't even serve dairy milk.

Nut milks, rice milk, oat milk and of course soy milk (which gained popularity more than a decade ago, but has since lost some of its shine due to conflicting studies about the way soy is sourced and what overconsumption can do to our health), have saturated the market since the whole health movement began around 2012, and has picked up pace in recent years. According to supermarket chain IGA: "Soy milk is still the most popular of alternative milks but almond, rice and coconut milk continue to grow exponentially in popularity with IGA shoppers, and we expect this trend to continue."

Who's giving up the white stuff?

Milkshakes
Milkshakes 

One in six Australians are saying goodbye to milk, according to a June 2016 study of 1200 people by the CSIRO and University of Adelaide. Fairfax Media reported at the time that, "three-quarters were eschewing dairy in an attempt to relieve symptoms such as bloating, stomach cramps and wind. A smaller number said they simply didn't like the taste or thought it would make them fat. More women than men are avoiding milk and dairy foods that are rich in nutrients including calcium, iodine, and vitamins A, D and B12."

With personal health a big factor for many, and the current trend by "health experts" to encourage people to give up dairy, more women than men are staying away in an attempt, essentially, when you take away all their "health" excuses, to lose weight.

"My naturopath told me I should give up dairy as it was causing problems with my skin and making me bloated. Since giving it up I feel much better, but it hasn't made me lose weight," says Alison, 44, an account manager.

Cookies and juice just doesn't have the same ring to it.
Cookies and juice just doesn't have the same ring to it.  Photo: iStock

"I was advised to give up dairy in order to get pregnant," says sub-editor Nicole, 36, "but despite giving it up for almost a year, it didn't help me. I've since been back on it and am now pregnant – in fact, I drink a glass of cold milk every day!"

"The scale of people restricting their diet without a medical reason is very concerning in terms of the public health implications, especially for women," CSIRO's Bella Yantcheva told Fairfax Media.

While leading nutritionist Rosemary Stanton said: "Some think it's not natural for humans to drink the milk of another mammal but for those who can happily tolerate lactose, milk is a perfectly OK food and no more unnatural than breeding cows and other animals and eating their flesh." She was concerned people were self diagnosing symptoms such as bloating, when there might not be a direct link, and said those on dairy-free diets needed to supplement their intake with other calcium-rich foods.

Got mylk?
Got mylk? Photo: iStock

So hip right now

"There are a lot of people jumping on the no-dairy bandwagon just because it's trendy," says nutritionist Jacqueline Alwill from The Brown Paper Bag. "But you should always try and learn whether foods are good for your body or not before making a decision. It's such a personal thing."

Alwill's philosophy is that it's more about getting your nutrients from different sources and mixing up those sources, instead of returning to the same source day in, day out.

"This might mean you swap out one dairy component for an alternative, rather than a blanket dairy cut. If you have a smoothie, a coffee and a yoghurt all with dairy in the one day, you might want to consider using almond milk for your smoothie and having a coconut yoghurt, but keeping the dairy milk in your coffee, where you really love it."

Alwill says there's no real need to give up dairy for the sake of it, or because you might have read that you need to. "If you don't have an allergy and it's not disagreeing with you, then a good, whole-fat milk is fine once a day. We should be varying our nutritional sources in every area of our diet, not just milk," she says.

And the new way to get your alternative creamy shot is to venture down to your local "mylk" bar, like Zeitgeist, recently opened in Sydney's Bondi, which serves home-made almond-macadamia milk with everything from milkshakes to vegan treats on the menu. It's a close cousin of Coffee, a Bondi Beach cafe that only serves only nut milk – no dairy. In Melbourne, on the "plant-based" menu at Matcha Mylbar in St Kilda you'll find soy, almond and coconut milk lattes (also with turmeric or apple cider), and Serotonin Eatery in Richmond offers macadamia milk, too.

"We make our own milk, so we know how creamy they are," says Zeitgeist owner Grace Watson. "The packaged ones are good, but home-made nut milks are much more delicious. Our milk gives the same creaminess as dairy and we can make it thick and frothy. It's perfect for steaming."

Which nut milk is best?

Not all alternative milks are created equal. Just like every other industry, there are those who have jumped on the trend and diluted the product down to a cheaper version of the original. And if you watch the video attached to this story on GoodFood.com.au, you'll see they didn't rate highly with our expert panel.

Comments on almond milk ranged from "It tastes like Mylanta", from the head chef of Gelato Messina, Donato Toce, to "It has a cooked taste", "It has floaties in it" and "It's too watery".

Vittoria's prime barista, Joe Rahme, says he wouldn't make coffee with it, "because it would be very hard to get a foam on the milk and it would separate".

Sommelier from the restaurant Automata, Tim Watkins, says of rice milk: "It smells great, it's got a really nice aroma to it, which makes the let down all the more great when you actually taste it."

And Colin Fassnidge from 4Fourteen says the almond milk "reminds me of milk of magnesia. It's medicine-y".

But the problem may be more down to the actual production of the milk, rather than the base flavour.

"We need to separate alternative milks into two categories," says naturopath Anthia Koullouros from Ovvio Organics. "One is those that are ultra heated and pasteurised, sold in the Tetra packs. They're long life shelf milks and the ones I've never recommended. The market listened to our protests however, because now there are a bunch of fresh nut milks available in the fridge section."

The problem with the Tetra options, Koullouros explains, is the ultra heating that essentially destroys the nutrients we'd otherwise get from the ingredients. "They also don't add much of the actual nuts to the product either, it's a lot of water and additives. Fresh milks are exciting as most of them are made from activated nuts and they're prepared well, with no heating, and are highly nutritious. They taste like fresh home-made almond milk. I would always choose the unsweetened variety and if you want to, add a little cinnamon or vanilla if you like it sweeter."

And if you are going to choose dairy milk, the overwhelming winner is full cream – preferably jersey (with the pod of cream on top). Besides being the best in taste, new studies suggest drinking skim milk doesn't have the slimming effect we once thought.

"Skim milk goes through that extra process to take the fat out of it, which means we're missing out on all the goodness and nutrition from the fat. Fat keeps us satiated, which will mean we eat less in the long run," says Koullouros. "Healthy living is not about counting fat or calories anymore. We look at the total nutrients consumed to have a healthy lifestyle. If you're getting nutrients from healthy sources then a little bit of fat with milk doesn't hurt."

The rise of raw milk

Raw milk (milk that is unpasteurised) is illegal to be sold as drinking milk in Australia, due to the bacteria content, which is said to cause E-coli among other things. But the raw milk movement has gained almost as much steam as the alternative mylk movement in recent years. Pro-raw milk users say the pasteurisation process that traditionally heats milk to 72 degrees, kills off the good microbes (mainly bacteria) as well as the bad, and we are not getting the full nutritional benefits of dairy once the milk has been pasteurised. Others actually blame dairy and lactose allergies on this pasteurisation process. Still, Australian law has not budged. Until now. A new company, Made by Cow, has recently been given approval to sell raw milk in Australia, using a cold press pasteurisation system, that uses the cold pressure of water to kill off bad bacteria.

"Good herd management, hygienic milking techniques and the cold pressure method have meant we can put 100 per cent safe, raw milk onto supermarket shelves," said company founder, Saxon Joye, to Fairfax Media.

"The bottles of milk are placed under enormous water pressure, squashed in about 15 per cent, to remove the harmful micro-organisms."

The company worked for a year with the NSW Food Authority to ensure the product was safe and fit for human consumption, though there are still some who have their doubts. It's for sale at selected Harris Farm Markets and About Life stores with a $5 price tag per 750ml bottle.