Samantha McCready
Samantha McCready
March 2, 2020

Has the cow milk era passed? Plant-based milk alternatives on the rise

Photo by Brian Suman on Unsplash

Cow’s milk appears to no longer be the most popular drink anymore. The downward spiral of dairy product consumption has been increasingly apparent on store shelves and in kitchen fridges in recent years. 

For years now, Statistics Canada has shown a decline in milk consumption across Canada.

In Canada alone, according to Statistica, commercial milk sales have been declining since 2004. In 2004, the average milk consumption per capita was 85.6 liters, and in 2018 it was 65.85 liters per capita, a decrease of almost 20 liters per capita in the past 14 years. 

But this has not always been the case. It wasn’t long ago that milk was ranked as the prime suggested choice for a beverage with your meal. 

Statistics worldwide tell a similar story: dairy is in a serious decline. But what is replacing it?

The Canada Food Guide was recently released with substantial updates, including a change from milk to water as the suggested drink to have with meals. Additionally, the required food group servings per day were eliminated. Previously, the guide suggested having multiple servings of dairy products daily. 

The rise of milk alternatives began around the same time as dairy milk was declining. This switch was due to mounting health concerns regarding dairy milk. 

Hannah Moore, a fourth-year student from St. Thomas University who consumes a plant-based diet, is not surprised by the decline in dairy milk consumption

“More and more people are developing intolerances and allergies, and more people are moving towards plant-based diets,” said Moore. 

The enormous variety of dairy drink alternatives that are available for consumers is one dimension of the plant-based phenomenon. 

In the late 2000s, the offerings consisted of nut-based options like almond or cashew milk. Although these nut-basd options remain one of the most popular alternatives, allergy concerns contributed to the rise of many other “milks”, such as soy and rice milk. And through the years, the emergence of quinoa, pea, and oat milk were introduced. 

This switch to plant-based alternatives is increasingly becoming the norm, especially with a near 10 per cent of the population considering themselves either vegetarian or vegan. 

One reason for this shift may be the public’s growing distaste for the lactose and saturated fat content in dairy, in addition to mounting environmental concerns: animal agriculture is a leading cause of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. 

Cowspiracy is a relatively popular American film that demonstrates the environmental side of the anti-dairy argument. It exposes the sometimes cruel and inhumane aspects of the dairy and meat industries in America, some of which carry over into the Canadian market.

“There are good and bad sides to the decline of dairy consumption in Canada – the bad being that many dairy farms in Canada are family-owned, and the decline in consumption will negatively impact those families. The positive side of this decline means that less animals may be forced to live in poor conditions,” said Moore.

However, it is important to note that some dairy alternatives are not actually more environmentally friendly options than cow milk. For example, almond milk is not much better for the earth than traditional milk: almond trees are naturally a water-guzzling plant that can worsen the effects of drought in places like California, where the majority of the world’s supply is grown.

Some other milk alternatives such as that derived from quinoa, have similar drawbacks. 

“I suggest oat milk as a great alternative to dairy milk. It is plant-based, and oats are not as water-intensive as other plant-based milks such as almond milk,” said Moore.

So perhaps there is no such thing as a guilt-free milk. But the Canadian demographic under 35 could possibly be ushering our world into a post-milk era. 

All signs point toward a long-term shift in dietary patterns, the rise of plant-based milks (in addition to the development of products like “Beyond Meat,” which aim to reduce meat consumption, and an overall greater conscientiousness towards food production systems worldwide) seem to be echoing that very statement: the future is plant-based.

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