Milk is counted among the most essential staple foods in our shopping lists, whether you drink it fresh, put it in your tea or coffee or use it in your recipes. Dairy milk has always been an important part of a balanced diet thanks to its vital nutrients, but over recent years it’s sales are plummeting more and more, as modern non-dairy alternatives are making their way into the market.
Why is this shift happening and what milk is best for your health and the planet?
Dairy Milk vs Plant-Based alternatives
Cows' milk is not only an excellent source of calcium, protein, and vitamin D, but apparently it's also more hydrating than water. So why are more and more people choosing to switch from this nutritious drink, to plant-based alternatives?
Non-dairy milk alternatives were first introduced to accommodate people who had some degree of lactose intolerance (approximately 65% of the global population) or had vegan dietary restrictions, but in recent times, people have also started consuming it for ethical and environmental reasons too. In recent years the substantial impact the worldwide dairy industry has had, and continues to have on our environment have become clear to all. From the widespread use of land, fertilizers and water needed for the production of cow feed, to the use of land required to pasture the animals themselves, to the release of greenhouse gases through the cows’ digestive system and waste, the industry’s impact is huge. Add animal welfare implications and the final phases of this production chain (processing the milk, packaging and transport of the goods) and you can easily understand why more and more people are looking for more planet-friendly alternatives to dairy.
Don’t get us wrong, non-dairy options are not all perfect, in fact some alternatives may also require large use of resources such as land and water, or may be guilty of high carbon emissions when it comes to their transport, as the primary ingredient may have had to travel great lengths before it was processed or delivered to your local shop.
What if your dairy come from a local, minimally processed source, where you know the animals have been treated and raised humanely? Well of course that option would be better than purchasing milk that has travelled miles and miles and of which you know very little of in regards to its real origins. However, at the end of the day, no matter how local and no matter how low-impact the production of dairy milk, research has demonstrated that a plant-based alternative will always have a lighter impact on the environment than an animal-based one.
The ultimate proof of how harmful cow milk is compared to others, came in a 2018 study that found that producing a single glass of dairy milk results in almost three times more greenhouse gas emissions than any plant-based milk, as well as consuming nine times more land than any of the milk alternatives.
It’s important to remember though that if you do decide to switch from dairy milk to a plant-based alternative in order to reduce your impact on the planet, you must also make sure you substitute the nutritional intake of calcium you were gaining from cows’ milk, by enriching your diet with replacements such as leafy green vegetables, tofu, baked beans, or other supplements that also include vitamin D.
Soy milk is probably the oldest non-dairy alternative there is to milk. It’s the only plant-based milk that comes close to offering a protein content comparable to dairy, and it’s also probably the one that most resembles it in taste, texture and nutrition profile (although it lacks in calcium). Originally from Asia this legume is now grown everywhere in the world, but although studies show the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with its production are much lower than those of dairy milk, soy requires a lot of land and it’s still guilty of driving deforestation in the Amazon while also displacing indigenous peoples and small farmers. Soybeans can also be genetically modified to withstand pesticides, as well as encouraging monoculture, which has a negative effects on both the soil and the climate.
If you choose soy milk as your plant-based alternative, stick to organic or non-GMO milk and check were they soybeans were sourced.
Almond milk has been touted as a healthier alternative to both cows milk and soy milk as it contains fewer calories than has no saturated fat or cholesterol. It also contains about 25% of your daily vitamin D, and almost half of your vitamin E. Its nutritional downside? As well as having very little protein, there are very few almonds in each carton, and most nutrients get lost when you start turning those nuts into milk.
From an environmental point of view, although almond trees occupy smaller amounts of farmland compared with other crops grown for milk, and don’t fare any worse than other milk alternatives when it comes to greenhouse emissions, they naturally require a lot of water to grow. Considering that about 80% of the world's almond supply is grown in California’s arid Central Valley, where water is naturally scarce, their production has a major impact on our planet. A recent study calculated that the total water footprint for just one California almond, averages 3.2 gallons of water.
Nutritionally oat milk is lower in fat and protein and higher in carbohydrates than other plant-based milk alternatives. It’s much more nutrient-dense than almond milk but not as nutritious as soy milk.
As far as its impact on the planet, overall oat milk is a pretty climate-friendly choice. Oats are grown in cooler climates and are not associated with deforestation in developing countries, they also requires fairly little water and land, and their greenhouse gas emissions are limited. The only major drawback associated with this alternative is the fact that most oats are grown in monoculture operations and can be heavily sprayed with pesticide before harvest.
Oat milk is a great choice for people who suffer from soy and/or nut allergies. If you pick this as your dairy alternative, make sure you buy from companies sourcing organic, or at least glyphosate-free oats.
Other popular options
There are so many other plant-based milk alternatives such as pea milk, coconut milk and hemp milk, which generally have a low impact on the environment as they normally require less water than others or produce less emissions. Rice milk is also extremely popular, but unfortunately uses large quantities of water.
Make your own Milk
As we said, no matter whether you choose soy, almond, oat, or other non-dairy alternatives, plant-based milk will always be more environmentally friendly then cows milk. If you want to reduce your impact even more, than don’t just switch to a non-dairy alternative, but make it yourself! Do this by buying your primary ingredient in bulk (nuts, seeds, oats) and straining them at home using organic cotton produce bags!
If you’re not sure how this is done, do some online research and find the perfect recipe for your needs! Making your own milk will not only cut down on packaging as you will be storing your milk in a reusable glass bottle (find other ways to achieve a plastic-free kitchen here), but you will also be cutting down on transport emissions, as well as creating a 100% natural product for you and your family to enjoy!
On the other hand, if you don’t have time to make it yourself, look into the brands on offer and check out their environmental credentials to find out how the primary ingredients were grown or sourced.