Milk is a staple in diets all over the world. It is also an excellent source of vital nutrients like calcium, vitamins, and minerals. Today, we have a wide range of plant-based milks, including oat, soy, almond, and other non-dairy kinds of milk. However, the question is, are plant-based milks better for the environment?
Dairy milk production harms our environment and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. According to a study from Oxford University, cow’s milk contributes at least three times more carbon emissions than alternative milks3. In addition, the natural resources, including land, water, and grain, involved in raising livestock to produce cow’s milk contribute to climate change.
The growing awareness of the environmental impact of cow’s milk has led to the rise of alternative plant-based milks. This article will look at the different types of plant-based milk and their impact on the environment.
When looking at the impact of plant milks on the environment, we need to consider the resources involved in growing the plant and the carbon footprint left.
Oat milk is a type of plant-based milk alternative that producers derive from whole oats that they soak in water, blend, and strain using a nut milk bag or cheesecloth.
Oat milk has a creamy texture and comes in various flavors. They are great, especially if you have soy allergies or are gluten intolerant. Oat milk is lower in calories than soy milk and cow’s milk and contains more calcium and fiber than cow’s milk.
Oats are seen to be more nutritious than almonds but not as nutritious as peas, soy, or hemp. Oat milk makes up a small portion of the total milk sales in the United States, but this has changed over the years, as predicted by Chris Ross, vice president of the marketing and research development at dairy giant HP Hood. According to research, the oat milk market size is to reach $6.45 billion by 2028.
Oat milk is not only nutritious to the body, but it is also eco-friendly. Oat milk represents 17% of the plant milk market in the United States9.
When it comes to carbon emissions, oat milk performs well. According to a study, oat milk uses 60% less energy than cow milk. The study also reveals that oats use 80% fewer gas emissions and 80% less land than cow milk7. Oats also use the least water consumption when compared to other plants.
However, oats are grown repeatedly on the same land, which can lead to an increase in pests, soil depletion, and crop fertility.
Soy milk is plant-based non-dairy milk popular for its high protein content and sustainability. It is known as the original alternative milk and has been a staple for many years.
Made from soybeans, soy milks come fortified with nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. It is also seen as the most nutritious of other alt milk. Soybean has its roots in Asia but is now grown worldwide. To make soy milk, plant-based milk producers press the soybeans, remove the insoluble fiber and then blend till smooth and milky.
Soy is one of the most sustainable milk alternatives. According to various studies, greenhouse gases during its production are much lower than in dairy milk and almost the same as almond milk and pea.
Soybeans are legumes and so fix nitrogen in the soil. This reduces the need for nitrogen fertilizer. Regarding water usage, soy uses less than a tenth when compared to almond milk4.
However, soy is one of the major drivers of deforestation in the Amazon forest. A study also reveals that one liter of soy would require a land use of approximately 1 square mile per year6. However, some companies in the United States source organic or non-GMO soybeans from within the US or Canada, reducing the effect of deforestation in the Amazon forest. As such, the best soy milk choice for the environment are those where soy production is local and accredited sustainable.
The hemp plant is an environmentally friendly and high-yielding crop, and producers can use all parts of the hemp plant. Produced can use the seeds and leaves to produce oil and milk. They can also use the stalk and the roots to make textile, hemp paper, plastics, etc. This plant is also naturally resistant to diseases and weeds. This means you will need fewer pesticides and herbicides.
The hemp seeds are nutritious and contain protein and healthy fat content. To make the milk, producers blend the hemp seeds with water.
Hemp is a versatile and sustainable crop used for food, fiber, and medicinal purposes. Hemp has many environmental benefits. It requires fewer pesticides and is effective for soil health. It requires more water to produce than the oat, soy, or pea, but it uses less water than almond or cow's milk.
Almond milk is nutritious plant-based milk that has become a popular alternative to dairy milk. People consider almond milk one of the best dairy alternatives, thanks to its thin flavor and taste. People also use almond milk for baking recipes and coffee.
Almond milk comes from almond nuts which producers soak, grind, and strain. It contains healthy nutrients like calcium, vitamin E, vitamin D, and so on. Most almonds grow on almond trees in California, United States, which supplies around 80% of the world’s almonds.
Almonds are nuts and so require a lot of water compared to other plants. As most almonds grow in California, drought conditions are a significant issue. According to a study by the Almond Board of California, it takes an estimated 3.2 gallons or 12.1 liters of water to produce one almond in California8.
In Australia, a study also revealed that almonds had the highest water footprint2 when compared to grapes, apples, tomatoes, peaches, cherries, oranges, potatoes, and carrots. Regarding land use, Almonds require less land than oats and dairy milk but more land than rice. Almond milk also has one of the lowest greenhouse gas emissions.
Pea milk is one of the newest and most sustainable non-dairy milk options. Producers extract this plant-based milk from yellow peas and combine them with water, micro-nutrients, and other ingredients. It comes in a creamy texture and contains healthy nutrients like potassium, vitamin A, iron, and so on. Pea plant milks are considered a more environmentally friendly alternative to almond milk.
Just like soy, peas are legumes and also fix nitrogen into the soil. This reduces the need for nitrogen fertilizers and water. Pea milk also generates lower greenhouse gas emissions than almond and dairy milk. Unlike soybeans, growers do not genetically modify peas to resist herbicides.
Coconut milk is a popular and tasty alternative to dairy milk. A cup of coconut milk comes from mature brown coconuts from coconut trees. It has a creamy, rich texture that contains a wide range of nutrients, including protein, fiber, carbohydrates, vitamin C, fats, and so on.
Coconut trees need very little water to produce fruit. Just like most trees, they absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, reducing their carbon emissions.
Coconut milk contributes about half of the greenhouse gas emissions of soy milk production. Coconuts are also grown in tropical areas, and the increased demand may increase the likelihood of biodiversity loss5. To avoid supporting unsustainable practices, you can look out for Fair Trade Certified coconut milk.
Rice milk is one of the most sustainable dairy-free plant-based milks you can go for. They are made from brown rice and sweetened with sugar or other sugar substitutes.
Rice milk production involves pressing the rice through a grinding mill, filtering, and blending it with water. Rice milk is easily digestible compared to other milk like oat milk or nut milk. It is also suitable for lactose-intolerant people or people with nut allergies.
Rice paddies are known to contain bacteria that give off methane1, contributing to a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions. They also require a substantial amount of water to produce rice. In addition, rice contains high levels of arsenic that can contaminate waterways. Rice milk uses more water than oat milk but less water than cow milk.
Cashew milk is another nutritious, low-calorie alternative to cow’s milk. It is made from cashews and water and can come in sweetened or unsweetened options. A cup of cashew milk comes loaded with nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats. It also comes with health benefits, including an immunity boost and improved skin, eyes, and heart.
Cashew production is similar to that of almonds. The cashews are first shelled and toasted and then soaked and filtered. Producers then blend the mixture with water and strain to get the final product. You can simply enjoy your cup of cashew milk and use it for your cereals or baking purposes.
Cashew milk uses less water than almonds for its production. However, cashews require more water to produce than legumes or seeds. Cashews are more sustainable when it comes to land use. They require minimal land space compared to other plant-based milks.
Cashews are primarily grown in India, Vietnam, and Africa. Due to the many stages involved in travel and processing, cashews have a higher carbon footprint. Also, there are known human rights issues involved in the production of cashews.
Here are a few plant milk brands prioritizing sustainability while delivering tasty and nutritious plant milk.
Best for: regular drinking, shakes, coffee
Oatly is an earth-conscious plant-based milk brand that produces oat milk - one of the types of milk with the lowest overall carbon footprint. The brand makes its oat milk using only certified gluten-free oats. They offer a wide range of oat milk options, including barista blend, chocolate, and low fat.
Best for: shakes, smoothies, cereal, cooking
Elmhurst is a plant milk company started by Henery Schwartz, a man from a family that had been in the dairy business for generations. After selling dairy for many years, he switched to plant milk, partnering with Dr. Cheryl Mitchell, a plant food scientist, to produce milk using a technique called HydroRelease minimal food processing. This resulted in a new line of non-dairy milks.
Elmhurst offers a wide range of plant milks, including oat milk, almond milk, hazelnut, cashew milk, and so on, free of any emulsifiers and preservatives. They come in aseptic packaging and hermetic sealing to create a fully sterile beverage without the need for preservatives. The cartons are also FSC-certified and 100% recyclable.
Best for: smoothies, shakes, and regular drinking
Ripple is a sustainable plant milk brand that makes nutritious pea-based milk with fewer calories and sugar. It contains ingredients like pea protein, cane sugar, sunflower oil, and so on.
All ingredients from Ripple are certified nonGMO by the Non-GMO Project. The brand claims to produce 86% lower greenhouse gas emissions than almond milk. Whereas a pound of almonds produces 1.6 lbs of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), a pound of peas produces less than ⅓ lbs of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). The difference in footprint makes pea milk more sustainable than almonds and cow’s milk.
JOI, which stands for ‘Just One Ingredient,’ is a sustainable plant milk company that makes milk concentrates made of 100% plants. They have a wide range of milk base concentrates, including almonds, oats, cashew, and hazelnut.
All you need to do is add some water to the base and blend. Products from JOI come in 100% recyclable packaging. The company is also working towards going zero-waste throughout its supply chain.
When it comes to saving mother earth, plant-based milks tend to fare better than dairy. In the world of plant milk, some are more sustainable than others. Almonds have a low footprint but require a lot more water to produce. Coconut milk also has a low footprint and requires less water. However, the increased demand for coconut milk and oil has led to rainforest destruction.
Oat milk, pea, and hemp milk seem to be the green heroes of the pack, considering they use way less water to produce compared to other types of plant milk. They also fix nitrogen into the soil, reducing the need for fertilizers. Also, farmers can repeatedly use the land used in growing oats.
Another consideration sometimes left out of the equation is what happens to the leftover pulp from plant-based milk production. When reused, the environmental impact is improved; however, different brands treat their leftovers in different ways.
To choose the most sustainable milk for you, you can consider trying out a variety of plant milks. Consider going for organic plant milk to reduce the use of herbicides and pesticides, which can damage the soil. Also, look out for recyclable packaging to minimize waste.
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Krampe, Caspar & Fridman, Adar. (2021). Oatly, a serious ‘problem’ for the dairy industry? A case study (pdf). International Food and Agribusiness Management Review. 25. 1-16. 10.22434/IFAMR2021.0058.
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SPINS (March 24, 2022) U.S. plant-based food retail sales
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.