Sunday 25 February 2018

10 things you never knew about milk

Ahh, the white stuff. From health benefits to surprising facts, our reporter finds out everything you never knew about the nation's favourite dairy product

There is so much more to milk than meets the eye.
There is so much more to milk than meets the eye.
Dairy cow
Chocolate milk
Vicki Notaro

Vicki Notaro

From a drop in a cup of tea to a fundamental part of our morning breakfast, milk is something so many of us use every day without even thinking about it.

Sure we know it helps dem bones, dem bones, and we know that Irish dairy is a vital part of the country's economy (in 2014, there were 17,000 dairy farmers with an average herd of 60 according to the IFA). But there's so much more to milk than meets the eye, from beauty and health benefits to nutritional value and even post workout recovery. Dairy sometimes gets a bad rap, especially in these times of cutting out entire food groups to cure what ails us, and the trendiness of almond and coconut milk and soya substitutes. But for now, forget about those 'udder' things (cough), and find out 15 things you didn't know about the natural, cow produced white stuff.

1 Milk is disassembled at production

Ever wonder how there are so many brands and different types of milk, when essentially it all comes from the same place - a cow's udders? Well, that's because when milk from the farm goes off in to a processing plant to become what we see on the shelves, it's basically deconstructed.

"All the fat and protein is stripped out of the milk," explains Irish Independent Farming's Darragh McCullough. "It's pasteurised and then homogenised, which means it's squirted through a tiny orifice to break up the cream and fat molecules and make sure they don't coagulate. That's why you won't see a skin on the top of your shop-bought milk."

2 ...and then it's put back together to produce different types

After this process, the milk is then reassembled according to the specifications of each brand to ensure consistency. "For example slimline is 1pc fat, semi-skimmed about 3pc, protein milk has extra protein added, and lactose-free milk has the lactose taken out."

3 Baristas are right when they give out about foaming properties

Ever hear someone complaining in a coffee shop that the cappuccino foamer is having little or no effect on the milk? Nope, it's not all down to the barista's skills - some milk just doesn't foam as well as others because of the processing it undergoes. "This is because processing denatures the fats and the protein molecules," explains Darragh. "Look, the more you prod and poke something, the more of an effect it will have. But it's of no apparent detriment to the health benefits of the milk."

4 Low-fat dairy is still good for you

Skimmed milk gets a bad rap, with many claiming that only whole milk is good for you, but this is just not the case. And when it comes to controlling weight, it can make sense to choose a milk that's lower in fat and calories, but still rich in vitamins. Some brands are fortified with vitamin D, which helps the body absorb calcium, while others have added folic acid to help expectant mums. So it's all a matter of taste, really.

5 Drinking unpasteurised dairy is risky

"I was reared on milk straight from the cow's teet, and I'm convinced I don't get sick because of it," says Darragh. "Because I was exposed to a lot of bacteria growing up, I now have a stronger stomach." However, he also explains that unpasteurised dairy is risky because of things like salmonella, e-coli and more. "It can be dangerous to drink raw milk if you're very old or very young, so if you don't want to take a chance, pasteurise it."

6 Irish milk is a pretty sustainable industry, comparatively

"Irish cows are grazed outside for most of the year, so they have a lower production rate than other cows around the world and a less controlled diet," says Darragh. "Irish dairy farming is more sustainable than any dairy-producing country in the world, but it's not entirely harmless and we're striving for ways to reduce the amount of methane emissions and greenhouse gases. The answer is to use more efficient cows that use less energy, resulting in a smaller carbon footprint."

7 There's milk in some wines

And eggs, and even fish guts - hence vegans having to avoid the vino. They're used as clarifying agents to essentially cleanse the wine of sediment. Hence why some people who suffer with dairy-aggravated sinus or allergies might feel a little snuffly after drinking certain brands of wine.

8 A very low percentage of the population is actually lactose intolerant

Early humans were lactose intolerant - their bodies hadn't genetically developed the ability to handle large quantities of milk, because they weren't farming cows at that point. However nowadays, it's only about 2pc of the public that truly feel the ill effects of eating dairy. Symptoms include diarrhoea, cramps, skin conditions and nausea, and can be passed down hereditarily.

9 But it's fair to say that non-dairy alternatives are having a moment here

Despite this, there's been a trend towards plant-based eating, veganism and Paleo diets of late, which don't advocate eating dairy. "5 or 6pc of milk sales are lactose-free according to some of the country's biggest producers," says Darragh. "Similarly to going gluten-free when you're not coeliac, it seems we're on a bit of a buzz to cut out stuff." While almond and coconut milk are dairy-free, they're not always lower in calories or sugar, so don't be taken in.

10 90pc of Ireland's milk is exported

We shipped off €3 billion worth of Irish dairy in 2014; around 5.5 billion litres of the white stuff. Asia is the main importer of Irish milk, but we send it to 140 countries in the form of powdered milk, butter, cheese, casein protein, and of course, fresh milk. According to Darragh, production is expected to increase by 50pc over the next 10 years.

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