Isaac Goldstein often suffered from skin problems, but never realised that certain foods were triggering them until he started following his wife’s vegan diet and gave up animal products.
“I soon realised when I dined out how much I was sensitive to certain foods,” says Goldstein, who discovered he is lactose intolerant. “It was enlightening.”
As a cheese lover, he found it difficult to cut dairy from his diet. But after a period of abstinence, the taste of pizza or ricotta would make him feel sick.
“The more I wasn’t eating dairy, the more powerful the adverse reaction to it,” he says.
Doing away with ice cream was tough, too, but he was living in San Francisco at the time and finding non-dairy ice cream alternatives was easy.
The problem started when he and his wife, Lacey, moved to Beijing four years ago.
“When I came to Asia, I missed having ice cream, so I decided to start making it myself. In our kitchen in Beijing, my wife and I started to play with flavourings and sugar quantities. We made our own gelato,” he says.
Their coconut milk-based frozen confectionery was a hit among family and friends.
After the couple moved to Hong Kong in 2012, Goldstein decided to ditch his hospitality job and be a full-time ice cream maker. And so, Happy Cow was born.
Lactose intolerance is the result of reactions in the stomach to dairy products. These can cause symptoms such as flatulence, diarrhoea, a bloated feeling, pains and cramps, stomach rumbling and a general ill feeling, according to Britain’s National Health Service.
Asians tend to be more prone to lactose intolerance than Northern Europeans because of ancestral diets, some studies show. The habit of drinking cow’s milk is said to have started about 7,500 years ago in central Europe. Continued exposure to milk caused the genetic change in Europeans that enabled them to digest the milk sugar lactose. However, Asians tend to stop producing lactase, the enzyme required to digest milk, as they mature.
In Hong Kong, many people are lactose intolerant because mothers tend to cut milk out of their child’s diet after they turn one year old.
But not all adverse reactions to dairy are caused by lactose intolerance. Some people are allergic to milk proteins, casein or whey, resulting in reactions such as a runny nose, itchy eyes, dry throat, rashes, hives, nausea and diarrhoea.
As a sign of the increasing demand for non-diary milk, “culinary leaders will turn to cashews, almonds, and peanuts to make their milk”, according to Sterling-Rice Group’s 2014 food trends predictions based on feedback from an independent culinary council of more than 125 chefs, restaurateurs, supermarket analysts, food media experts, and consumers.
Global launch numbers for lactose-free dairy products more than tripled in the five-year period to the beginning of 2012, according to a report from Innova Market Insights. The global lactose-free dairy product share of total dairy introductions rose from less than 2.5 per cent to 4.5 per cent over the same period.
Data from SPINS, a US-based research company for the natural, organic and specialty products industry, show that sales of non- dairy organic frozen desserts in the US increased 12 per cent from 2012 to 2013 – more than double that from 2011 to 2012 – driven largely by growth in coconut milk-based ice cream. Other ice cream alternatives substitute cow’s milk with soya, rice or almond milk.
Coconut milk ice cream is the closest to dairy ice cream due to its naturally higher fat content, according to Marc Donofrio, marketing director at Luna and Larry’s Coconut Bliss, the company that launched the first coconut milk ice cream in the US in 2004.
“Other options such as rice, soy or even almond milk, often need to add oil, gums and fillers to create a creamy consistency,” Donofrio said in a report in April last year in the US-based publication Organic Wellness News. “Coconut milk has the natural creamy consistency of dairy but healthier medium-chain fatty acids.”
With some seed money from friends, Goldstein initially ran his business from home, using a blender and a small ice cream maker. He refined the texture and flavours, and invented new recipes.
In January last year, he started a Facebook page (facebook.com/ happycowhk), which now has more than 1,000 likes. As word spread about his ice cream, within four months he could no longer keep up with demand, so he decided to open a factory in Mong Kok. Since opening the site in August, Goldstein has sold almost 2,000 litres of his vegan ice cream.
“There is a huge and growing market for dairy-free alternative foods in Hong Kong,” he says. “On a global scale, consumers have become more concerned with their health and maintaining a sustainable lifestyle.
“This is also true in Hong Kong where groups like Green Monday and Meat-Free Monday are gaining momentum as people try to find the simplest way to shift towards a more sustainable lifestyle.”
Goldstein shows me the ingredients list on the packaging of a famous ice cream brand. He notes that it contains many items in addition to the main flavour: milk, milk cream, powdered milk, saccharose, atomised glucose, invert sugar, stabilisers and flavour enhancers.
He says that Happy Cow has fewer and better ingredients: coconut milk, coconut sugar, the flavour itself and guar gum, a plant-based stabiliser. His product contains no artificial flavours, colours or preservatives.
Goldstein also follows the guidelines of the Environmental Working Group, a US organisation of scientists and policymakers that has differentiated food groups into two lists: The Dirty Dozen and The Clean 15. This helps consumers know when to buy organic and when it is unnecessary.
“Our cherries, vanilla and chocolate are organic,” he says, “our pineapple is not”.
Sustainability is another key value at Happy Cow.
“Animal farming and milk production are often harmful to the environment and the animals,” says Goldstein.
“There is a limit to how much dairy can be produced in a sustainable way, but the demand is increasing.
"In factory farms, the animals are treated as a commodity, the dairy is full of hormones and antibiotics, and the waste from the production process is highly polluting. I have nothing against dairy per se: there are many small producers who do a good job.
"Unfortunately, traditional farms are being replaced by factories which are not sustainable.”
Andrea Oschetti is a private chef; cuoreprivatechef.com