As weather conditions around the world change, farmers are tasked with producing food in ways that conserve resources and do more good than harm for the environment. Unfortunately, we’ve seen the headlines that proclaim animal agriculture has no place in such a food system.
But what those headlines often fail to include is that, while climate is a critical part of the future of farming, so is the customer base consuming those foods. And that group is rapidly expanding in number and in need of nutrients that animal products can readily provide.
We know that dairy products provide 13 essential nutrients, and cows have become more efficient to produce more milk while using less water, less feed, and less land. How these two factors — nutrition and sustainability — relate to each other in terms of feeding the world makes the case for dairy’s position in the market of the coming decades.
To put some numbers on that correlation, researchers in Sweden evaluated the nutrient density of eight beverages in relation to their climate impact to determine a new figure they termed the Nutrient Density to Climate Impact (NCDI) index. In their results published in Food & Nutrition Research, they explained that the NCDI score for milk was “substantially higher” than it was for water, orange juice, soft drink, beer, red wine, soy drink, and oat drink.
NCDI was defined as a beverage’s nutrient density (the amount of a nutrient in 100 grams of the drink compared to the nutrient’s recommended intake in Sweden) divided by the carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2) emitted by 100 grams of the drink. CO2 equivalent is a common measure for comparing emissions of various greenhouse gases (GHG) that have different warming potentials on an equal scale.
Nutrients considered in this evaluation were protein, carbohydrates, fat, retinol equivalents, vitamin D, vitamin E, thiamin, riboflavin, ascorbic acid, niacin equivalents, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, folate, phosphorus, iron, potassium, calcium, magnesium, selenium, zinc, and iodine. After establishing nutrient availabilities in each drink, the researchers determined GHG emissions through the production, manufacturing, packaging, and transportation phases of each beverage.
Nutrients carry milk
Because of its range and quantity of available nutrients, milk came out on top with an NCDI score of 0.54. Milk was the only drink that provided more than 5% of daily nutrient recommendations for more than four of the 21 nutrients. In fact, it provided substantial levels of nine nutrients.
Next were orange juice and soy drink with NCDI scores of 0.28 and 0.25, respectively. The researchers explained that soy drink contained similar amounts of protein as milk, but the quality was not the same. Milk proteins had a more favorable amino acid composition, they wrote.
Oat drink came in at 0.07. It has a very low GHG footprint but also a poor nutrient profile. Red wine scored an NCDI of 0.01. Soft drink, beer, and water rounded out the bottom of the list with a score of 0 due to low nutrient density.
Considering both environmental impact and nutrition is critical in making healthy decisions for the future of our world. The nutritional quality of milk and the commitment by dairy farmers to produce it efficiently make dairy products a natural choice to fit both needs.