Should plant-based milk be subsidised in schools?

Cow’s milk has a long history in the annals of PR and advertising. From the ‘Got milk?’ campaign and the dancing milk bottles of 1990s television, to the more recent Cravendale ‘cats with thumbs’ advert, from an early age we are taught that dairy milk is an essential part of our diets and ‘good for us’.

Yet more recently, scientific research has called this into question. Cow’s milk has since been linked to both ovarian (Faber, Jensen, Høgdall, Høgdall, Blaakær and Kjær, 2011) and prostate cancers (Abid, Cross, Sinha, 2014). It’s also high in saturated fat (BHF) and consumption has been correlated to increased rates of osteoporosis. More than this, an estimated 65% of the population is lactose intolerant, with the percentage rising among ethnic minorities. So why does the government insist on subsidising it for school children?

This was the question posted by a group of doctors – Plant Based Health Professionals UK – during World Plant Milk Day on 22 August. Working with Eden Green PR, the controversial question received front page coverage in The Times, a follow-up story in the Daily Mail, and even an opinion piece in The Telegraph, with the doctors arguing that cow’s milk should be entirely replaced with plant-based milks that are fortified with calcium, alongside fruit and vegetables.

While children who choose not to have cow’s milk can take their own plant milk to school, Dr Shireen Kassam, founder of Plant Based Health Professionals UK, argues that this inequality is a mistake, saying: “Dairy should not be an essential part of school nutrition. It is a defunct food product that is not only unnecessary for health, but which also leads to environmental destruction, with the world’s 13 largest dairy companies producing the same greenhouse gas emissions as the entire UK. While dairy milk does contain calcium, dairy consumption is not required for bone health, as supported by clinical studies. A recent review paper highlights how countries with the highest intakes of dairy products – including the UK, US and the EU – tend to have the highest rates of hip fractures, while low dairy consumption is associated with a reduced rate of hip fracture. In addition, dairy consumption is associated with an increased risk of prostate cancer in men – which is most prevalent in African Americans – and possibly endometrial cancer in women, as well as causing digestive issues and other ailments for people who are lactose intolerant.

“In the case of free school milk programmes, plant milks should be offered routinely, which offer a wide range of health benefits, including equivalent amounts of calcium and protein to cow’s milk and even fibre, without excluding ethnic minorities. Soya milk consumption, for example, offers similar or higher levels of protein than cow’s milk, is fortified with calcium and other important vitamins and minerals. Studies of dietary patterns suggests that the regular consumption of soya foods in particular is likely to be beneficial for bone health as part of a predominately plant-based diet, especially those which include the consumption of fortified milks as well as alternative dietary sources of calcium such as kale, broccoli, tofu, nuts, and beans. Predominately plant-based diets without the consumption of dairy have also been shown to provide numerous other benefits, including improved heart health and reduced cancer risk.”

With research showing that plant milks aren’t just good for our bodies but the environment too, perhaps it’s time that the next generation is raised not on the British Milk Council and Milk Marketing Board slogans of previous decades, but on a more scientifically informed agenda?

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