10 surprising facts we learned about dairy on RTE
Irish people have always had a love affair with the cow but that love has more to do with the milk than the meat.
This week’s episode of RTE’s ‘What Are You Eating’ delves into the nation’s love affair with milk, which sees us consume 500m litres each year.
The programme dished the dirt on some of the horrors that lurk in some of our favourite products, but also opened up the the issues that threaten our rich grass-fed dairy herds.
“Milk today is quite a different beast. What happens with the companies is that there’s money for them in taking off the cream and making butter and taking off the fat and making a host of other products. There’s no money in milk. The money is what you take out of milk and that’s what the big companies are after,” revealed food writer John McKenna.
1. Milk powder turns up in very surprising products.
You'll find in a diverse range of products from the coating in dry-roasted peanuts, to whey protein and, most surprisingly, shower gel.
2. By far the most lucrative export market in Irish milk is powdered infant formula.
That's because our grass-based system is less likely to be contaminated. One Irish formula is so revered in China that it retails at €43 per kilo.
3. The most loved dairy product in the whole market is butter and there's a valid reason why Irish people miss it when they go abroad.
It is actually different to butter found in any other country. Irish butter is yellow for a reason and that is because our cows are grass-fed. A dye present in the grass travels into the milk and impacts butter’s flavour and colour. Real butter is made with just two ingredients, cream and salt.
4. Lactose intolerance is much less common in adult Caucasians and it's has very little to do with allergies to dairy.
Approximately 65 per cent of the world's population suffers from lactose intolerance - a reduced ability to digest the sugars found in milk.
According to Dr Mary Keogan, an Immunologist Consultant: "People who are lactose intolerant can tolerate a small amount of milk, the equivalent of half a pint a day. But if they stay off milk they tend to become more intolerant.
"So it's actually good for people who are lactose intolerant to continue to have some exposure to milk."
5. In recent times medical science has had a rethink on the once-demonised saturated fats found in dairy products.
Ruminant animal produce, like beef, contain certain type of fatty acid called CLA which has heart protective qualities. It is probably very healthy for us and low-fat dairy products aren't as healthy as you think.
Irish people began to fear the impact of butter on their health after medical professionals began to warn the public about the risk of saturated fat on the body. As an alternative they began purchase butter alternatives, which mimicked butter. “The fat we were told to ignore for years, is actually a very very healthy fat for us. We were encouraged to eat fats that were in fact very unhealthy for us,” said Joanna Blythman.
In an effort to reduce our intake on saturated fat, the fat was removed and replaced with sugar. See, the tastiest part of food is the fat and without it consumers felt the the fat-free products were bland. They needed to be replaced with something full of flavour... and that was sugar.
"Fat on its own is not going to increase your risk of heart disease... it's the overall diet that needs to be looked at," Joanna Lythman.
6. We are the third biggest consumers of milk in Europe.
Irish people consumer 500million litres of milk per year.
7. The most popular dairy alternative to milk is almond milk - but it's surprisingly easy to make at home and a half a litre costs as little as €1.
You just need a cup of soaked almonds (soaked for creamy consistency) and 500ml of water. Blend together and then sift the mixture through a gauze to get rid of nut residue.
Shop bought milk only contain 2 per cent almonds, the rest is water, stabilisers, thickeners and a whole host of ingredients so homemade almond milk is healthier for you.
8. Ireland consumes more cheese per capita than France. Really.
Ireland had a long and ancient tradition of cheese making. It was local. It was within the household or it was within the parish. However, the co-ops started to develop creameries in the 19th century - so instead of making cheese at home, it was brought to the creamery.
Right up until the 1970's and 1980's Ireland was associated with processed cheese like Calvita but in the late 80's there was a resurgence in artisan cheese - in the past few years we've overtaken France when it comes to cheese consumption.
9. The main difference between factory and farmhouse cheese is whey.
More accurately, what they do with whey. For smaller producers, why is essentially a waste product but factories extract massive value from whey and use it in processing their cheese.
10. Ireland’s dairy future could be under threat with the government’s Harvest 2020 scheme.
Since 2015 milk quotas have ceased to exist within the EU. As a result, an expansion in milk production in Ireland will occur.
The government envisions Ireland’s milk production to double which would mean the introduction of 300,000 extra cattle. However food experts and farmers fear this will have a huge impact on Ireland’s environment and ultimately might lead to our grass-fed culture becoming diminished.
“The expansion of the dairy herd as proposed over the next few years will make it almost impossible for us to meet our climate change obligations,” revealed Fintan Kelly of An Taisce.
“You’re looking at an intensification of all the negative environmental impacts that have happened to the landscape over the last 100 years or so. We’re looking at environmental impacts, biodiversity impacts, water impacts,” he said.
Farms with over 200 cows are unnatural concepts and it's hard to manage that amount of livestock. Forage will be in short supply as we're unable to support that level of animals in the long run.
Farmers will start to look at economically viable ways to support the increase in livestock such as housing them indoors for 12 months, turning away from grass-fed methods.
Food writer John McKenna said: "Every farmer knows that you can’t manage that amount of livestock because what do you do with the s**t? Is it going to keep going in rivers? Is it going to keep killing fish? Are we just going to multiply our problems?” he asked.
Former Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney stressed that he continues to support the scheme.
“I think we’ll see a lot of herds outside for longer periods as we look at better drainage systems and better grass management. We need to allow farming to modernise and allow farmers to make a profit,” he said.