Can I Really Do Without Dairy??

Being all freshly retired and looking to spend some of my freed-up time exploring ways of living more sustainably, I decided to reduce, if not quite eradicate, the amount of dairy products I was consuming. No harm in trying, I considered, though I must admit that the thought of eating and drinking the various vegan alternatives new to the market was not overly appealing. Then again, since my diet was almost vegetarian — eating meat and seafood once or so a week and getting most of my protein through pulses, nuts and only a little milk, yoghurt and cheese — how hard could it be?

According to , for every kilogram of cattle reared for dairy, an equivalent of 20kg of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. Alternative sources of plant-based protein such as nuts and pulses produce about 1 to 2kg and that — admittedly in a very simplistic way — illustrates that giving up dairy for other sources can significantly reduce the emission of greenhouse gases into the air.

For those not fully up with the science: increases in greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane has made the Earth’s atmosphere less able to cool at the same rate it is heated by the Sun so the temperature of the Earth has increased and climate change has accelerated — a bad thing.

Other foods that produce high carbon emissions include lamb, cheese, coffee (gulp!), farmed shellfish, palm oil, pork and poultry. Coffee lovers like myself might worry a little over that product’s score of 15kg of carbon dioxide for each kilogram produced but can take some solace from the fact that my coffee maker produces a lovely mug’s-worth using only 10g of ground beans, which compares favourably with the 115g of meat in a quarter-ponder beef burger or chicken piece.

Another measure of a product’s impact on the Earth’s environment is the land use involved. Milk from dairy requires a much higher quantity (about ten-fold) of land use compared with milk made from alternative sources such as oat, soy and almond; land use for beef and mutton is approximately one hundred times that of pulses. This is important as reducing the need for large tracts of land for beef and dairy production would, in turn, reduce the need for wide-ranging forest clearing; land already razed for cattle could be used for growing protein and dairy alternatives or given back to nature to increase biodiversity and provide space for human recreation.

For someone like me who is trying to live more sustainably, doing without dairy seems a worthwhile endeavour… time to experiment!!

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From left: I can live with coconut ‘cheddar; to dairy or not to dairy? ; my favourite non-dairy yoghurt for the moment!

My first encounter with non-dairy ‘milk’ came about more-or-less by accident — like my first taste of an acceptable alcohol-free beer when I pulled a bottle out of an ice-bucket of various cool ones and didn’t notice the difference until someone asked me what I thought of the Beck’s Zero ! While visiting family in the US, my allergic sister-in-law took us for breakfast in a vegan cafe, in search of reliable dairy-free milk. I ordered a coffee and received the kind of question I always get in America but for which I am never quite mentally prepared: which milk do you want with that? I remember I (very decisively) said something akin to errrrrrrm… which do you have? The answer came back to me like a hail of bullets from which I somehow picked out the word ‘cashew’ and gratefully asked for that. Wow it tasted good and much more creamy than I had expected!

Since deciding, very tentatively, to try to reduce my dairy intake, I was encouraged by the memory of that experience and decided to try the cashew milk option first — particularly as it was a regular at my local Co-op. Almond milk provided a second variation that I also quite enjoyed. However, I then read about concerns with the amount of water required to make milk from nuts — particularly in producing the almond variety in dry lands like California — and the requirement for the nuts to be imported over vast distances so I extended my trials to soya and then oat. While milk made from soya is creamy and of a good consistency, I found it has a very distinctive taste of, well, soya, which is a taste I really like but not necessarily in my coffee. Also, there’s the downside to soya of it being imported from South American companies with the associated issue of land clearance and deforestation. So oat milk is now my milk of choice and it scores well on flavour — very slightly grainy but I emphasize the very — creaminess and nutrition — various fortifications help with the calcium content and levels of vitamins B2, B12 and D3. On cereals, it holds its own, tasting as good as any semi-skimmed milk and in cooking, it’s a commendable substitute for dairy.

Another point worth mentioning is the longevity of non-dairy milks compared with cows’ milk both before and after opening. Five days is the maximum time recommended for refrigerating the alternative milks but I find that can be extended without loss of quality — especially by dividing the product into smaller bottles for freezing.

As far as which brand to buy is concerned, I haven’t explored it fully , tending to stick to whatever’s available at the fore-mentioned local co-op and online with Tesco and this I leave as a potential adventure on which interested readers might embark but will state that I’ve enjoyed both Alpro and Oatly so far…

Yoghurts and cheese are two dairy products that I usually consume a little and then mostly in cooking — in curries and pasta dishes especially — so I tend not to require a wide range in the supermarket fridge or deli counter. However, I do enjoy a little bit of natural yoghurt in a bowl of fruit and the occasional helping of mature-cheddar in a salad or sandwich so finding a passable alternative is important.

In finding a suitable yoghurt, the brand chosen has proved pivotal. The ubiquitous Alpro label offers a soya yoghurt and an oat alternative, both of which have proved acceptable when added to my fruit. The problem that both present is that they lack the bite of a ‘real’ Yeo Valley or Danone and, while they taste pleasant and very creamy, they lack the yoghurty acidity that provides a tang to off-set their smoothness. Luckily, I turned to Oatly and that company has provided an almost-flawless substitute in its (obviously) oat-based, Greek-style version that combines sufficient kick and creaminess for this, admittedly undiscerning, consumer.

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From left: oat alternative is my preferred milk; Pure Buttery for my toast and Flora plant butter block for mash and frying.

Similarly, with cheese, I lack any sort of taste or judgment in that field and find myself very happy with Tesco own brand coconut-based cheddar replacement and a similar applewood substitute. These go well enough in salads, parmagiana, omelettes and sandwiches but I am tempted to include them on a cheese board, with the usual dairy items when I have more discerning family and friends around just to see how a blind testing goes…

Lastly: what to do about butter? I must admit that I do like a little bit of ‘real’ Country Life butter spread on my toast for breakfast. Furthermore, I enjoy inflicting a distinctively-buttery flavour on rice, mashed potatoes and fried mushrooms and have always had a block of Anchor set aside in the fridge for frying and cooking. No longer — an exploration of a range of ‘buttery’ spreads led to me selecting ‘Pure Buttery Taste’ spread and good fortune led me to plump first-time for Flora’s ‘Plant Butter’ block that tastes great in both beaten into mash and melted on new potatoes.

A summary: if you, like me, want to do that little bit more to reduce your carbon footprint, doing without dairy is possible — no harm in trying. 😀