Daily Newsletter

26 March 2024

Daily Newsletter

26 March 2024

“Replacing dairy doesn’t lead to an equally healthy diet” – Dutch Dairy Association’s Dr. Stephan Peters talks dairy’s nutrition credentials

The European dairy industry is planning to meet in Denmark to discuss key issues facing the sector.

Andy Coyne March 26 2024

Against a backdrop of farmers protesting over EU policies aimed at protecting the environment (but which they say makes their produce uncompetitive and burdens them with bureaucracy) the European dairy industry is planning to meet in Denmark to discuss the key issues facing the sector.

The 10th Dairy Innovation Strategies conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, in late April is being organised by Just Food’s sister organisation Arena International.

Aside from sustainability commitments, competition from other parts of the world and declining milk sales are all likely to be addressed at the event, as will competition from plant-based alt-dairy products.

One of the speakers at the conference is Dr. Stephan Peters, manager for dairy, nutrition, health and sustainability at the Dutch dairy trade body Nederlandse Zuivel Organisitie (NVO).

His organisation has recently carried out research into the nutritional and health benefits of dairy compared to alt-dairy products, research he believes confirms how crucial dairy is in dietary terms. Getting this message across could be vital to the dairy sector’s future prospects.

In advance of the conference, he spoke to Just Food about that research and the Dutch dairy sector in general.

Just Food: What was the scope of the research the NVO has carried out?

Dr. Stephan Peters: This wasn’t only about dairy versus plant-based products but about dairy and sustainable diets. The starting point was talking about healthy and sustainable diets. Is there a place for animal products in that as we hear a lot about a transition to plant-based diets?

Just Food: Without pre-empting your conference presentation, I’m guessing your conclusions are that a dairy-based diet is best?

Peters: When it came to dairy products, they [the results] didn’t surprise me [that dairy came out of it so well from a health and nutrition perspective] but in the Netherlands the 2015 advice to switch to a more plant-based diet is still in place. The switch to make things more sustainable doesn’t automatically mean animal-based to plant-based. It could be switching meat for eggs. If you replace animal foods in your diet you will have to replace nutrients in an alternative diet. If you are changing your diet to more plant-based and need more nutrients you need to decrease the level of meat not dairy. You should keep dairy at the same level.

Just Food: So you are talking about vegetarianism not veganism?

Peters: Yes. You need to see it in a holistic way. It [replacing dairy] doesn’t lead to an equally healthy diet. Scientific consensus shows that decreasing dairy increases the risk of health problems. The [long-term] impact of plant-based products is unknown. If people want to go towards a plant-based diet no problem but we must not ignore the facts. A sustainable diet should be a healthy diet and nutrition should come first.

Just Food: If this is the case why are people switching to at least trying alt-dairy products?

Peters: There is a misinterpretation of what is being presented in supermarkets and what is being consumed. In the Netherlands, the volume of these [plant-based] products is very small. Dairy alternatives are very low and not growing any more.

Just Food: But milk consumption is also going down?

Peters: Yes, there is also a decrease in the intake of milk. Volumes are up because of population growth but the amount of milk per capita has decreased.

Just Food: Why is this happening?

Peters: When are people consuming milk? During lunch and breakfast? In terms of lunch, in the ‘80s and ‘90s everyone consumed milk but now everyone has got a bottle of water. Water is the main competition for milk but we know from data that 98% of people consume dairy products, 60% on a daily basis. Only a few industries have such big numbers. In supermarkets, plant-based products are 20% and dairy 80% [in terms of what is stocked]. That doesn’t mean that 20% of what we consume is plant-based.

Just Food: So why do supermarkets make such a big deal about alt-dairy products?

Peters: These products have high margins. They are cheaper to make and consumers are willing to pay a higher price for them.

Just Food: What about the environmentally-friendly argument in favour of alt-dairy, given methane from cows is a major contributor to carbon emissions?

Peters: It is only good if you care about your environmental footprint but care less about health. If you care about your health it is more complex. From an ecological argument perspective, people could consume soy drinks and take a supplement.

Oat drinks are not a nutritional alternative to milk. NGOs may say that sustainability is linked to your environmental footprint but if you can’t support the health and nutrition aspect it is not sustainable. We always say nutrition should come first.

For farmers, the last decade has been a nightmare

Just Food: With regard to the Dutch dairy industry, what sort of shape is it in at present?

Peters: It’s all in transition now for farmers and consumers. When you increase the price of milk it is good for farmers but bad for the industry and vice versa.

Just Food: We have seen a lot of protests from farmers across Europe, much of it linked to what they claim are unfair sustainability demands imposed on them by the EU, which they say makes it difficult for them to make a living.

Peters: For farmers, the last decade has been a nightmare. Whether it’s phosphates or nitrates, every two years there has been new legislation so they can’t do any long-term planning. They don’t know when new legislation will be forced on them.

Just Food: What do you think will be the result if the current situation continues?

Peters: The result is low economic value in Europe. There will be decreasing product when demand around the world is so high. China, the US and India are looking at Europe and the less we produce the more they will because demand in the world is increasing.

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