Are we the only mammals that continue to drink milk after breastfeeding? “Yes, but we are also the only ones who cultivate the land to eat vegetables, among others,” Luis Collado, director of the Department of Medicine at the Complutense University of Madrid (UCM), often answers when asked to deny the “black legend” that accompanies one of the most basic foods in any basket of the purchase: milk. A product, by the way, controversial since the times of the Greeks and Romans, who considered it to be for barbarians and rural classes, as journalist Mark Kurlansky recounts in his book ‘Milk! A 10,000-Year Food Fracas’ (‘Milk: 10,000 years of controversy’). The latest chapter of the liters of ink that have been written about dairy consumption is signed by the World Health Organization (WHO), which warned that the growing popularity of plant-based alternatives to the detriment of milk is contributing to an increasingly lower (and insufficient) intake of iodine in European countries.

In Spain, Collado explains, this lack of iodine would not be a problem, since the main source of this mineral in our diet is fish. But our country is also not immune to this progressive abandonment of cow’s milk in favor of vegetable alternatives. In 2023, the last full year analyzed, Spaniards drank 62.9 liters per capitawhile two decades ago we exceeded 91, according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Only in times of crisis, such as that of 2008 and the pandemic, did this staple food rebound in any shopping basket, accounting for 3.55% of the budget we spend on food and drink.

Those who are most resistant to stop drinking milk are the couples with children of all ages and retireeswhich hold the record for per capita consumption: 92.68 liters per year. By category, semi-skimmed milk remains the queen of our carts (46% of the total volume) although there is notable growth (14.4%) in still very minority varieties such as goat’s milk (0.16 litres per capita).

«At its core, the demonization of dairy products has to do with commercial interests. “It is really advisable to consume it throughout all stages of life, and not just for children,” says Collado, also director of the UCM/CLAS Chair (Complutense University of Madrid and the Asturian Central Dairy Institute). “It has been sold that they are harmful due to the famous intolerance that is said to affect up to 30% of the population, although there are no serious studies to prove it. There are also no serious and conclusive analyses that link milk consumption with some types of cancer. Then there is the idea that it makes you fat, but that is not true either. In fact, it helps protect against cancer. cardiovascular diseases, hypertension and diabetes. Regarding its relationship with some types of cancer. You only have to look at the Central Lechera Asturiana #Yobeboleche campaign to see that the commercial efforts of large companies seek to praise the entire product and not just their brand.

A very complete food

«The milk It is a very complete food, it has almost everything, In addition to being the king of calcium, vitamins B, A and D in varying amounts and proteins. Its consumption has been demonized, but beyond the allergy there is no reason not to take it. Even if you are lactose intolerant there are lactose-free options. There are very scandalous messages that induce healthy adults who are careful to change milk for vegetable drinks. This happens a lot and has no basis.. These alternatives do not have the same nutrients, although the deficiencies or not will depend on the rest of the diet,” argues Rosa María Ortega, a doctor in Pharmacy and professor of Nutrition at the Complutense University of Madrid, who recommends taking, in a normal diet, between two and three servings in the case of adults and between three and four in the case of children, adolescents, pregnant women and the elderly.

It coincides with the dietary recommendations of the AESAN (Spanish Agency for Food Safety and Nutrition) which in its latest review in 2022 underlines the importance of these dairy rations being «no added sugars and low in salt» and introduces the sustainability factor: “Due to the high environmental impact of dairy products, it is suggested to reduce the number of daily servings if you consume other foods of animal origin.” According to the latest calculations by the United Nations, livestock farming is responsible for 100 million people each year. the emission of 6.2 gigatons of CO2the equivalent of 12% of all emissions released into the atmosphere by human activity in 2015. Ramón Artime, president of the dairy sector of Asaja, regrets that his product is being “demonized”, without putting the emphasis on other industries that are as polluting as his own. However, he assures that farmers are aware that There is room for improvement, although they would need help from the administrations to face these investments.

The success of alternatives

According to Patricia Ortega, a dietician and nutritionist specializing in vegetarian food, there are also other reasons, beyond the environmental ones, that lead her patients to look for alternatives to milk: “Many change because of the amount of information that exists about the treatment of cows in macro farms, because they usually digest them bettercan be found more and more in bars or suffer from some pathology that advises against their consumption.

Since 2017, when the Ministry of Agriculture began to include data on these vegetable drinks in its yearbook – at the legislative level it is not correct to call them milk – their penetration in Spanish homes has only grown, although it remains a minority: in 2023 we consume on average almost six liters per capita, 8.1% more than in 2022 and 15.4% more than in 2019. Aware of this boom, several recognized dairy brands have also launched their ‘veggie’ line. «Dairy products They are not an essential food group “Vegan cheeses should not be included in any type of dietary pattern. If you want to consume them, within a healthy and balanced diet, of course it is appropriate. But, if for whatever reason you do not want to include them, this will not entail any nutritional deficiency,” says Ortega. “Cow’s milk could be replaced by a soy vegetable drink fortified with calcium and vitamin D. With vegan cheeses you have to be careful because, on a nutritional level, many are ultra-processed with poor quality fats, excess salt and low or no protein content.”

The National Federation of Dairy Industries emphasizes that dairy products and plant-based alternatives are different products at a nutritional and market level, where liquid milk continues to reign: «Spain It is one of the EU countries where it is consumed the most, “something that does not happen with cheese or butter,” highlights the president of the organization, Luis Calabozo, who points out that according to their analyses, total dairy sales were, despite inflation, similar to those of 2022. However, they ask the Government for a super-reduced VAT also for yogurts and encourage consumers to opt for national cheeses. However, they see the future white and in bottles.