We need to make a distinction here. In general, no matter whether a food is animal or plant-based, the more processed it is, the more water it needs, as a greater amount of raw materials have to be incorporated into the final product. The water used to produce these raw materials is “concentrated” in the calculation of the final product’s water footprint. Animal products are not automatically worse than plant-based foods, especially since it depends on where the food was produced. As long as enough rain falls, what is known as green water, then no artificial irrigation is needed, so that reduces fresh water consumption. As far as cow’s milk in Germany is concerned, using between three and 22 liters of water, it is not necessarily worse than plant-based alternatives, or pulses and vegetable oils. According to the national consumption study in Germany, the average daily consumption of a glass of around 100 milliliters of cow’s milk is comparable to if we wash our hands one time more often, or not - the difference in terms of water consumption is around the same.
The idea of replacing milk is not new, back in 1893, Germany was producing the first “vegetarian children’s milk” made from almonds, nuts and sugar. However, the plant-based products were not real alternatives in terms of their composition, nutritional value or processing possibilities. The only difference was that cows were not involved in the production. That is also the argument made by people who are vegan, who don’t eat animal products. But producing milk does not necessarily involve animal suffering. A further advantage: Ruminants are not competing with humans for food, since they eat grass. As for the climate, a reassessment by the University of Oxford found that methane from cows’ stomachs does not contribute to the advance of global warming as the methane is part of the natural carbon cycle. Milk production can therefore be part of regenerative agriculture that also protects the environment.
Worldwide, as with meat, milk production volumes are also rising. Demand is growing, particularly in China. The share of milk alternatives is showing double-digit growth and is reaching four percent of the global market share. However, in relation to total dairy market sales, it is still less than one percent in Germany. Even though milk alternatives are a lucrative niche for some companies, they cannot be used as a raw material for cheese production and cannot compete in nutritional terms. So it is more likely that the two will coexist in the long term.
“Milk and dairy products contribute between 10 % and 50 % of our daily intake of most nutrients, according to a national study.”
In Germany, we consume about 255 grams of milk and dairy products every day. The German Nutrition Society recommends up to 310 grams. You find 250 grams of milk in a quart of milk, for example, or 250 grams of yogurt or 25 grams of hard cheese. Milk and dairy products contribute between 10 percent and 50 percent of our daily intake of most nutrients, according to the national study, so that benefits people’s health more than any harm it might do.
We could eat better in Germany when it comes to sustainability. According to the Planetary Health Diet, which promotes human and planetary health, even with a global population of 10 billion, our diet in Germany would look like this: Cut meat consumption in half, eat slightly less highly processed cereals and dairy products, less sugar and processed beverages. Eat more vegetables and legumes instead. You don’t have to give up everything.
After working in Giessen, San Diego and Madison, nutritional scientist Dr. Malte Rubach gained his doctorate in research at the Technical University of Munich. His expertise on topics such as food, nutrition, sustainability and innovation is much in demand. His work has been published in international journals and textbooks, as well as in The New York Times and the Folha de S. Paulo and other popular media. He has also written several books including “88 Nutrition Myths – What You Should Know About Your Food,” published in German by Knaur MensSana HC.