Why dairy alternatives are taking the health market by storm.
Dairy-free… “lactose-free”, “dairy alternative” – walk into nearly any supermarket or health store, and you’re bound to find these claims on a growing number of food products. Gone are the days of good old-fashioned whole milk; instead, consumers can opt to purchase cashew nut yoghurt, soy milk, and yes, even camel milk. Why is there such a surge in demand for dairy alternatives? And what are the health benefits of going dairy-free?
The rise in prominence of the dairy-free movement can be traced back to three major contributors: lactose intolerance, dairy allergies, and farming practices.
Lactose intolerance is a condition characterised by the inability to digest lactose – a sugar found in milk – due to the absence or malfunction of the digestive enzyme lactase. This leads to unpleasant symptoms such as abdominal bloating and cramps, flatulence, nausea, and/or diarrhoea approximately 30 minutes to two hours after consuming dairy products.
In healthy humans, the small intestine produces adequate amounts of lactase from birth until approximately 3-5 years of age. Lactase is necessary to digest breast milk, and as the child is weaned, the body no longer perceives lactase production as a necessity. This leads to a gradual decrease in lactase production over time (this is known as lactase nonpersistence). The ability to continue producing adequate amounts of lactase into adulthood appears to be a genetically determined trait, and is closely linked to ancestry.
It is estimated that approximately 30% of the global population is lactose intolerant, but the condition is more prevalent among certain populations. Approximately 80-100% of Asian, 70-90% of African, and 70% of Southern Indian populations are lactose intolerant.
Conversely, in populations where dairy farming has been commonplace for centuries, lactose intolerance rates are much lower. Individuals of European descent experience particularly low rates of lactose intolerance: approximately 15% of Germans, 5-15% of British, 17% of Northern French, and 17% of Finnish individuals are lactose intolerant1.
Lactose intolerance should not be confused with a dairy allergy. A dairy allergy occurs when the body perceives certain proteins found in milk (such as casein or whey) as foreign invaders, and produces antibodies in response. These antibodies may cause symptoms ranging from a runny nose, sneezing, nasal congestion, decreased mental clarity and hives to more severe symptoms such as swelling of the mouth, lips, and face, wheezing, and anaphylaxis.
Even if individuals do not suffer from either lactose intolerance or dairy allergies, some still choose to avoid dairy due to the potentially negative impact of modern dairy farming practices on the quality of milk. Many dairy establishments inject their cattle with artificial growth hormones (rBGH) to stimulate milk production, and antibiotics to prevent disease and inflammation. These hormones and antibiotics pass into the milk, which may lead to adverse health effects in humans. Additionally, the high-heat pasteurisation process, while removing harmful bacteria, also destroys many beneficial enzymes, including lactase.
This explains why many lactose intolerant individuals can consume raw, fermented dairy products without experiencing adverse effects, because raw dairy naturally contains lactase to break down the lactose. Additionally, the fermentation process also decreases the amount of lactose present in the milk.
What are the alternatives?
If you are lactose intolerant, allergic to dairy, or simply want to avoid dairy due to modern farming and processing practices, there are a number of great-tasting alternatives. For dairy allergies, the presence of milk proteins is the main concern.
Some milk products from other animals, such as goats or camels, are much lower in allergenic proteins, and many people suffering from dairy allergies when consuming cows’ milk do not experience the same symptoms when consuming goat or camel milk products.
For lactose intolerance, you could try introducing small amounts of fermented dairy products to test if your body reacts favourably. Camel milk is also known to be lower in lactose than dairy. For both allergies and lactose intolerance, the easiest route is to consume plant-based dairy alternatives. Health stores and many commercial supermarkets stock a large range of alternatives: coconut milk, almond milk, soy milk, oat milk, rice milk, and hemp seed milk to name a few. Dairy-free coconut yoghurt, cashew-nut yoghurt, vegan cheeses and butters, and several types of dairy-free ice creams and smoothies are also readily available.
Here is a recipe for an easy almond-milk:
1 cup of raw almonds
4 cups of filtered water
1/8 tsp of Himalayan salt
1-2tsp of raw honey or 4 dried dates
1/4 tsp of vanilla extract (optional)
A dash of cinnamon or 1 tsp cacao powder (optional)
Add all the ingredients to a blender and blend on high speed for about a minute.
If you own a nut milk bag or some cheesecloth, strain the milk, or transfer into airtight container and refrigerate for up to 3-4 days.