We will probably never know what led somebody, thousands of years ago, to decide that cows’ milk was just as delicious and nutritious for people as it is for calves. However, this Cow Appreciation Day, it's worth raising a glass of ice-cold milk to that long-gone nutritional pioneer.
The dairy cow is known as the foster mother of the human race and for good reason - milk provides both growing children and adults with essential nutrients within a healthy balanced diet. My 3-year-old daughter often tells me: “Mummy, milk is important to help me grow” and, although we are incredibly lucky to live in a world with myriad food choices, it’s important to bear in mind that not all foods positioned near to dairy products in the supermarket have the same nutritional benefits.
In conversations with fellow parents, I have often heard the suggestion that young children should be transitioned away from dairy milk towards soy or other beverages, in the belief that any drink sold as “milk” is nutritionally-equivalent. The European Court of Justice recently ruled that plant-based beverages such as soy, almond or rice juice can no longer be labelled as “milk", therefore this may reduce parental confusion, yet it seems that replacing dairy products with plant-based foods has already had significant effects.
A recent study from Canada, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, examined 5,034 children aged between 2 and 5 years, and showed that for every 250 ml cup of non-dairy “milk” consumed per day, children were 0.4 cm shorter. This seems like a small amount, but translates as a 1.5 cm height difference between 3-year-old children consuming 3 cups of non-dairy vs. dairy milk per day. Is height important? Not necessarily – it’s affected by genetics as well as nutrition (although it’s unlikely that all the non-dairy milk-drinking children had short parents!), but it does suggest that protein and other essential nutrients for healthy growth may have been somewhat lacking from the diets of non-dairy-drinking children. A similar study showed that children who drank plant-based juices rather than dairy milk had lower vitamin D levels, but that this could be rectified by drinking cow’s milk.
In developing countries, high-quality protein is scarce and the importance of infants and children receiving sufficient nutrients for growth and development cannot be underestimated. Survey data from the International Livestock Research Institute (slide 14) showed that infants from 6-18 months old don’t consume enough milk to meet their nutritional needs, ranging from 20% (sub-Saharan Africa ) to 62% (South Asia) of their daily requirement. Yet if all children under 2-years-old got all their daily protein requirement from milk, the total needed would only be equal to 3% of world production (slide 29).
The dairy cow is unequalled globally in providing high-quality human food in addition to fertilizer, by-products, social and cultural status, and opportunities subsistence farmers in developing regions to improve and diversify their incomes. Today, let us celebrate the mighty cow – cheers!
Tags: Sustainability ,