We’ve seen a major trend of plant-based meats entering into our supermarkets and restaurant menus, but it isn’t limited to that category. In fact, farms are making the transition to cruelty-free and plant-based products more than ever. What's one example? One family farm in Queens, New York, has switched their operations from dairy cows to plant-based milk. They utilized a process created by food scientist Cheryl Mitchell, and it could provide a shift in the dairy industry.
Elmhurst Milked is the transformed company that now uses nuts, oats, and rice to create milk. Over nearly a 50 year span, traditional milk consumption has declined by nearly 40 percent. The “Got Milk?” advertising campaign didn’t prevent the drop from continuing, and the move toward alternative milk continues in recent years. That prompted the change by a dairy farm that was in existence since 1919.
How does the new Elmhurst farm operate? Farmers grow almonds in California and ship them across the country to their factory in New York. These whole almonds are washed after being picked and again when they arrive to Elmhurst’s facilities. A cold-mining process “milks” the almond into separate parts, and that substance is filtered until it leaves fresh nut milk.
Mitchell worked on the cold-mining process for almonds when going out on her own in 2001. She got her start in alternative milk when developing rice milk, but still had ambition to find a different milk that provided the nutrients that traditional milk had. This new milking process still provided five grams of protein -- five times more than most almond milks.
"I was inspired by what I was seeing at natural foods industry shows, and particularly in the work and research that Cheryl Mitchell was doing," Henry Schwartz, whose grandfather started the Elmhurst farm, told NPR. "It was time to reevaluate the past and start creating the food traditions that would carry us into the future."
The process of switching over became clear and easy for Schwartz when he met Mitchell in 2015. In less than two years, the cold-mining process was implemented and Elmhurst started churning out products. Now, they have nut milks from almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, and more. Milks are available unsweetened and there’s even an edition that adds chocolate.
Since this process works with so many nuts and oats, Mitchell notes that this adds to the sustainability of plant-based milk. Each variety has its unique benefits with what nutrients it can provide and how it can help our environment. Bob Parker, president of the National Peanut Board, told NPR that a one-ounce serving size of almonds requires 80 gallons of water in the milking process when peanuts just use five gallons.
There’s been debate on whether or not plant-based milk should actually be called milk. Dairy farmers and those representing them argue that these alternatives don’t provide the same nutrients as traditional milk. Trader Joe’s customers complained that their “soy milk” was “illegally labeled,” but a judge ruled in 2015 that consumers aren’t tricked into thinking that soy milk and cow’s milk are the same thing.
In the future, we’ll see if any other rulings force plant-based milks from needing to abandon the name. For now, milked nuts and oats do provide their own benefits that make it competitive to the traditional dairy market. It’s why we could see more farms transition like Elmhurst did in a few short years.
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