You’ve probably heard that plant-based milks are better for you than dairy milk. Well, it’s definitely true, and while the plant-based milk industry is expanding rapidly, it’s not a totally perfect system.
The Guardian published a great article a few days ago that dives into the details about which plant milk is least terrible for the planet. The winner of the plant milk footprint was oat milk, which is pretty new to the market, but has exploded in popularity in recent years.
Swapping Cows for Cashews (or almonds, hazelnuts, or anything else)
There are lots of reasons to ditch dairy – cruel conditions for both animals and farmworkers, emissions from cows destroying the atmosphere, and of course, health issues from head to toe from eating dairy.
Dairy doesn’t always have to be so terrible – there are definitely farms doing it better. Yet there are still considerations when it comes to feed (it takes a lot to fatten a cow), emissions from raising these animals, and the noted ill health effects. The dairy industry in the US is supported by Checkoff Programs that essentially support farmers for making more milk and cheese, and then foists it upon consumers in savvy marketing campaigns (Got Milk?). This means that we have a lobby that encourages us to drink more milk, eat more cheese and butter, and not worry about the effects it might be having on our health.
It also means that the whining dairy lobby does silly things like create lawsuits against using the word ‘milk’ when it comes to almond milk, soymilk, and other plant milks – which are growing in popularity and thus threatening the dairy industry. In fact, many dairy operations around the country are shutting down due decreased demand.
“All milk alternatives are far better for the planet than dairy,” Guardian reporter Annette McGivney explains. “A 2018 study by researchers at the University of Oxford showed that producing a glass of dairy milk results in almost three times more greenhouse gas emissions than any plant-based milk and it consumes nine times more land than any of the milk alternatives.” It’s great news that plant milks are better for the planet – though they are not perfect.
Which Plant Milk Options are Best for the Planet?
I loved this article in The Guardian, because I like to see the details of our foodprint really analyzed. I was, however, sad to see my everyday milk (coconut milk) land on the naughty list. McGivney gives some simple explanations, which I’ve summarized below with lots of commentary.
- Almond milk: IMHO, the worst milk on the market – it always tastes watery and often tastes like plastic, and has almost zero nutritional benefits. I do love homemade almond milk, which still comes with some of the planet-ruining issues, so I take heart knowing that almonds are not that often used in my kitchen. Almonds are famous for their huge water footprint (the most of any other plant milk), BUT NOT AS MUCH AS DAIRY. Emphasis added, because anytime there is a mention of how much water almond trees use, and how all of us hippie/millennial/vegan folks are destroying the planet with our almond milk lattes, that needs to be underlined and explained. Almonds are also terrible for our bee populations, which are ‘sent into a war‘ when they are shipped from around the country to pollinate the huge swathes of almond farms in California.
- Coconut milk: Coconuts are not winning on the sustainability or social impact scores. Grown in tropical areas, there are concerns of forced labor and/or poor wages, and they are leading to forest clear cutting to plant coconut monocultures. I love the healthy fats and incredible flavor of coconut oil, but these ethical concerns are very troubling. One way to avoid issues with coconut is to work with companies that are doing coconut right, like Dr. Bronners. They don’t make milk (yet?), but they do make coconut oil on their farm in Sri Lanka that has fair wages and safe conditions for their workers.
- Hazelnuts: These are a good option for a few reasons: they come from trees (like almonds) but they are wind-pollinated, so we don’t need to torture the bees, and because they often come from the Pacific Northwest, which has more abundant water supplies. Hazelnuts have historically been really expensive, so this is not a milk I’ve bought frequently. Homemade hazelnut milk or a brand like Elmhurst that uses just nuts would likely be divine. Fun fact: hazelnuts are also called filberts in other parts of the world. Other nut milks that could be an equivalent option include cashew, walnut, or macadamia nut milk, though these were not covered in the study.
- Rice Milk: Rice milk is one of the least popular and least delicious milks on the market. McGivney explains that rice is a ‘water hog’ and that rice paddies can be breeding grounds for methane production and it can require high amounts of fertilizers that end up in waterways. Mostly it just tastes like water, so just skip it entirely and reduce that way.
- Seed Milks: Hemp, flax, sunflower and pumpkin seeds can all be made into milk. She explains that these ‘niche milks’ are better because they are farmed on a smaller scale. I’d add that hemp is also a superstar crop that uses little fertilizer or water; hemp milk, however, can be bitter and weird, and I’d say the same for flax. Pumpkin and sunflower are better, though these too can be strongly flavored. All of them are cheap, abundant, and high in fat so make creamy milk options.
- Soymilk: Back in the day, when I was a young vegetarian trying to find cool foods in suburban Michigan, our options were limited to some pretty terrible soymilks (this was the 90s). Things have improved since then, and soymilk isn’t nearly as gross as it used to be. More importantly, McGivney says soy was one of the sustainability winners in the Oxford study. Another thing I like about soy milks is that due to the high protein content, there are usually no fillers (just water and soy; most other milks have gums and thickeners). Soy has its own environmental issues, notably that much of Brazil and the midwest US has been ripped up for commodity soybean production. However, most of this is for GMO soybeans used in feedstock. I don’t know of any brand of soymilk on the market that doesn’t use organic soy, so this is less of an issue. And don’t worry, it’s not going to give you man boobs because of its allegedly high plant estrogen content. Fun fact: hops are one of the most estrogenic foods, so if you’re afraid of man boobs, skip the beer.
- The Winner: Oatmilk! Even Forbes knows what’s up when it comes to oat milk. Not only are oats cheap, they are nearly allergy free, and they are surging in popularity! “According to Bloomberg Business, retail sales of oat milk in the US have soared from $4.4m in 2017 to $29m in 2019.” The little oat is now being turned into any milk-based foods you could imagine: yogurt, creamers, coffeeshops, ice cream, and of course, boxed milks, and there are dozens of brands that are now using oats to make milk and more. Oats are cooler weather crops, are already grown all over the country, and as much of the oat crop goes into animal feeds, there are plenty of oats to go around. Like most other plant milks, you can also DIY your own oat milk in a blender to save on packaging and ingredients.
Another note about choosing your milks: whatever type of milk you buy, always choose unsweetened. There is often a ton of sugar added to plant milks, so be mindful of the extra sweetness, and choose those with the least amount of ingredients. Same goes for all those yummy vegan creamers and yogurts.
The summary of the Guardian article is pretty awesome: McGivney explains that it’s really about choosing plants over dairy, even with all these shortcomings. “Consumers should drink whatever plant milk is most appealing to them and not fret over sustainability shortcomings, which are chump change compared with the environmental harms from dairy.”