Whether you add it to your coffee or pour it into your cereal bowl, it’s hard to escape a product as commonplace as milk. The truth is that every household probably has a carton in the fridge. But today, it might not be a carton of traditional dairy milk.
Who would have thought, years ago, that new alternatives would give milk a run for its money? Today, it’s never been easier to skip traditional cow’s milk and order something else, from soy, cashew, and macadamia to almond, hemp and pea.
The market for dairy alternatives is booming today. In fact, data shows that cow’s milk sales slipped by 6% in the year leading up to June 2018 and plant based milk sales rose by 9% during the same period, currently accounting for 13% of total milk sales.
But, with so many options to choose from, how do we know which plant based milk is the healthiest? And, equally important, which milk has the smallest impact on the environment?
If you’re looking for a “better” alternative to dairy, keep reading for an exhaustive overview of the industry as we look for the most eco-friendly milk that’s also good for you.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended to be professional medical or health advice. Please consult with a doctor or health practitioner if you have particular questions or concerns.
Dairy vs. Plant Based Milk: Which is the Healthiest and Most Eco-Friendly?
Let’s compare all the options
There’s no denying that cow’s milk contains important vitamins and minerals. It has everything from folate, magnesium and potassium to phosphorus, zinc, protein and vitamins A and B-12, although it’s most redeeming quality is its calcium content.
It also offers a host of other benefits. It supports bone density, especially in children; it contains the protein needed for healthy muscles, bones and teeth; and the whey and casein in milk are believed to help lower blood pressure.
All these benefits aside, there is also some debate as to whether cow’s milk is truly healthy. Some argue that milk’s saturated fat content and cholesterol can cause heart disease and that milk consumption may increase the risk of bone fractures. There are also studies suggesting that high consumption of milk can lead to everything from prostate cancer and ovarian cancer to acne and weight gain.
In terms of dairy milk’s impact on the environment, dairy farms produce an immense amount of pollution, and they use a significant amount of water. Broadly speaking, cows produce greenhouse gases because they belch methane, which is extremely potent in warming the atmosphere. Manure and fertilizers which aren’t handled properly can damage local water resources and dairy farmers who don’t follow sustainable practices can destroy ecologically important areas.
One alternative to cow’s milk is soy milk. This is one of the most popular plant-based non-dairy milks on the market and it has no shortage of benefits.
Soy milk is made from soybeans and has a very healthy nutritional profile as it contains vitamin D, iron and fiber. It’s also high in protein and low in calories and sugar. Fortified versions can even include essential omega-3 fatty acids as well as flavonoids, which offer anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities. It’s also balanced in terms of carbs and fat and, from a nutritional standpoint, is somewhat similar to low-fat cow’s milk.
On the flip side, while soy milk does contain calcium, it has far less than cow’s milk. Many soy milks contain added sugar, which is best to avoid. If you want the healthiest version, stick to unsweetened, unflavored fortified, organic soy milk. Lastly, soy milk contains certain hormones similar to human hormones, which has led to considerable concern; however, you would have to consume massive amounts for this to be a real health problem.
What impact do soybeans have on the environment? For starters, they add nitrogen back into the soil for subsequent crops, they’re known for helping farmers manage blackgrass, and they’re grown with minimal use of pesticides and fertilizers. However, in Brazil, which is a leading producer, soy production is leading to deforestation and soil degradation, which in turn is a source of greenhouse gases. If you want to drink responsibly, check the carton and make sure your beans aren’t from Brazil.
This is another dairy alternative that’s ideal for people who are lactose intolerant or vegan.
Made from ground almonds and water, the drink is later processed to boost its shelf life, texture and flavor, with the result that it contains flavoring, preservatives and thickeners.
As for almond milk’s nutritional profile, it’s an excellent source of vitamin E, which is good for skin and eye health, protects cells from free radical damage, and may help protect against heart disease. Fortified versions on the market also contain calcium and vitamin D. The downside is that this milk does not contain much protein.
Is almond milk good for the environment? Well, it has very low greenhouse gas emissions and it requires very little land to grow; however, production requires significant water resources, and if you consume it and you’re not in one of the main producing countries, the environmental impact is greater as it must include the emissions associated with transportation.
Almond milk is also believed to be very detrimental to the bee population. In California, which is home to 80% of the world’s almond supply, farmers are using bees to pollinate their groves; however, those crops are often treated with pesticides, which is making the bees ill and causing them to die in mass amounts.
This non-dairy milk, made from oats that have been soaked in water, blended and strained, is seriously taking off.
It has a relatively healthy nutritional profile and contains vitamin B, folate, magnesium, manganese, zinc, copper, phosphorus and thiamin, and fortified versions often contain calcium, iron, potassium and riboflavin as well as vitamins A and D.
Oat milk is high in fiber and carbohydrates, and the latter contributes to a feeling of satiety. It also has no saturated fats and helps you maintain healthy levels of cholesterol. This being said, comparatively, oat milk is not as nutrient dense as other milks.
If you want to enjoy all the benefits, your best bet is to make your own oat milk as store-bought versions can often contain sweeteners, thickeners and emulsifiers.
Relatively speaking, oat milk has a smaller carbon footprint, particularly compared with almond and soy. It is much less water-intensive than almonds and uses far less land to grow compared with cow’s milk, with the result that it has quite a small environmental impact.
Perhaps a lesser-known alternative is pea milk, which is made by blending yellow peas. This nutrient and calorie dense drink has a very milk taste and a creamy texture, not to mention a fantastic amount of protein, with around 8 grams per serving (in line with a serving of cow’s milk).
It is generally low in carbohydrates and a bit of fat, which doesn’t come from the peas but from the oils that are used to give it a creamy consistency. This is usually sunflower oil, which is a source of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.
You might see fortified versions, which will usually contain added calcium, iron, potassium, vitamins D and A and occasionally omega-3.
Truth be told, pea milk has a lot going for it: as a high protein beverage, it keeps you feeling full for longer; since it’s low in carbs it’s a great option for dieters (keto, low-carb, Atkins, etc.); it’s unlikely to cause an allergic reaction, given its scant ingredients; and its nutrient profile supports bone strength. As a general rule, skip the flavored versions as they have extra sugar.
As for its environmental footprint, pea milk production requires significantly less water than almond and cow’s milk, and the yellow split peas from which it’s made generally grow in areas where there is plenty of rain and little need for irrigation. Additionally, peas are a nitrogen-fixing plant and don’t need a lot of nitrogen fertilizer. All this being said, there is little information from independent researchers about this drink’s carbon footprint.
Coconut milk is essentially coconut cream mixed with water. It’s a lactose-free, low-carb, high-fat beverage that’s an excellent option for anyone who doesn’t or can’t drink cow’s milk or who is on the keto diet, for example.
With regard to its fat content, this alternative milk is high in saturated fat, at around 4 grams per cup. Although coconuts contain relatively healthier fats, the jury’s still out on whether this saturated fat is truly “good” for you. The fact that it has a higher fat content means this isn’t the healthiest on the list, plus it isn’t as loaded with nutrients as other dairy alternatives.
There is the belief that drinking coconut milk can help you fight off viruses and infections, as coconuts contain medium-chain saturated fatty acids, one of which is lauric acid. The body converts this into monolaurin, which can help destroy organisms which cause disease.
Although coconut trees generally absorb carbon dioxide and use small amounts of milk, they also have a negative environmental impact. As global demand for this tropical drupe increases, rainforests are destroyed and workers are exploited. As the bulk of the world’s coconuts come from the Philippines, India and Indonesia, so their transport around the world is a source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Hemp milk is made by blending hemp seeds and water and is a great option for people with tree nut allergies. This drink is creamy and has a nutty, earthy flavor, plus it’s loaded with protein, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats.
It contains all essential amino acids and unsaturated fats, including omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, which help prevent dementia and fight depression and are good for your skin. It also has riboflavin, which can help reduce migraines and protect your eyes, and it’s chock-a-block with everything from zinc, phosphorus and iron to calcium and vitamins A, D and B-12. These support bone health, improve memory and build immunity.
Hemp milk production generates less waste compared with other plants and crops. It’s resistant to bugs, which reduces the need for fertilizers, and as a non-GMO plant, it doesn’t deplete nutrients from the soil. It also uses little water and absorbs carbon dioxide. Every part of the hemp plant can be used to make a wide variety of products, from rope to shampoo. In short, this plant is very positive for the environment.
Hazelnut milk is an extremely healthy alternative milk with countless benefits. It’s got a delicious nutty flavor that tastes great in coffee, smoothies and cereal, and it’s free of gluten, soy and lactose. This low-cal beverage has folic acid, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins E, B1, B2 and B6 and zero saturated fat and cholesterol. In short, this nutritional profile promotes healthy skin and hair, blood formation and mental health while keeping your cholesterol down.
The fact that hazelnut milk is low in protein and not suitable for people with nut allergies are two small strikes against it. And as always, skip the flavored versions.
That being said, are you convinced and ready to pour yourself a glass? Keep reading because hazelnuts also have a low environmental impact. Hazelnut trees pull carbon from the atmosphere and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, rather than contribute to them. They’re cross-pollinated by the wind, which carries the dry pollen between neighboring plants, and they grow in moist climates with good rainfall, so they require much less rainfall.
Rice milk is generally made with milled brown rice and water. It does have a natural sweetness, but store-bought versions often contain sweeteners like sugar and sugarcane syrup. This lactose-free beverage is ideal for people with allergies, specifically to nuts, soy and milk.
From a nutritional standpoint, it’s high in carbohydrates and low in protein. Although fortified versions contain vitamins A and D and calcium, this milk is not a natural source of either.
Despite its less than stellar profile, rice milk has several health benefits. As it has no cholesterol, it does not increase the risk of cardiovascular problems; it contains inositol, which helps improve skin tone and slows the ageing process; and it has antioxidants, which help protect skin from sun damage.
On the flip side, it should be noted that rice milk has a high arsenic content, which can lead to serious side effects, like cancer.
Rice milk is not especially kind to the environment either as production requires extensive amounts of water, plus it produces considerable greenhouse gas emissions since the bacteria in rice paddies release methane into the atmosphere and the fertilizers often used can pollute bodies of water.
Flax milk is essentially filtered water mixed with cold-pressed flax oil.
This non-dairy beverage has a lot going for it, as flax seeds contain a good amount of protein, calcium and is one of the best sources of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids. This drink is high in fiber, lignans and also alpha linoleic acids, which help prevent heart and blood vessel diseases. Flax milk is also believed to play a role in reducing the risk of heart attacks and lowering cholesterol and high blood pressure. It contains no cholesterol, lactose or trans fat or gluten and actually has a creamy texture.
Fortified versions generally contain considerable calcium, aligning this alt-milk with regular milk. And as is the case with most of these milks, skip the flavored versions as they tend to be sweetened and, therefore, contain extra sugar.
Flax seed is grown in more than 50 countries around the world and, broadly speaking, seeds require less to grow compared with nuts (for example, more than 15 gallons of water is needed to grow 16 almonds), although additional data is required for fully assessing this seed’s impact.
The extra creamy low-cal nut milk is very low in carbohydrates and is high in fat, which makes it ideal for anyone managing diabetes or on a keto diet. The fat is primarily monounsaturated, which has plenty of health benefits, such as reducing inflammation and oxidative stress and lowering LDL cholesterol levels.
Macadamia nut milk also contains iron, potassium, manganese, calcium and vitamins D, B12, B6 and A.
Like the other milks on our list, the minimally processed version is healthier as it doesn’t contain added sugar. If you want to stay on the safe side, make sure you buy an unsweetened version.
When it comes to the environment, this milk has a relatively lower water footprint than others as macadamias are grown in regions that don’t generally suffer from water scarcity. That being said, when the milk is made with nuts grown half-way across the world, they do have a large shipping carbon footprint.
Cashew milk is made from whole cashew nuts and water and it has a lot going for it. This drink is lactose free and contains vitamins, minerals, protein and healthy fats, especially unsaturated fatty acids. It contains a high amount of magnesium, which is important for blood pressure regulation and nerve function.
Furthermore, it’s believed to improve heart health, due to the fatty acid content, and eye health, thanks to the antioxidants it contains: lutein and zeaxanthin. It contains copper, which helps maintain skin health, and also vitamin K, which is excellent for blood clotting.
Cashew production is somewhere in the middle of the road when it comes to the environment. While much less water is required to produce it compared with almonds and dairy milk, for example, cashews do use more water than seeds. Additionally, it uses minimal land compared with other plant-based milks.
That being said, macadamia nuts are grown in several locations that are suffering water shortages, and a very large portion of these nuts are grown in India, where cashew pickers are often exploited.
My favorite option is to make plant based milk at home using the Almond Cow plant based milk maker, and use different types of nuts and ingredients each time. At the end of the day, making your own milk is always the healthier and most sustainable option because you have control over the ingredients, you eliminate packaging waste, and can source high quality ingredients. Whether it’s a question of grinding, soaking or blending, the homemade version will often be your best bet.
The Almond Cow can transform any grain, nut or seed into milk with a very simple and fast process. You can also use it to make soups, beverages, and lots of other delicious things. The leftover pulp can be used in countless recipes, and each machine prevents about 500 plastic cartons from going into the ocean and landfills.
What is the Healthiest, Most Eco-Friendly Milk?
The burning question remains: which milk is the best for you and the environment?
It’s safe to say that plant milks are more environmentally sustainable than dairy, which has the largest environmental footprint. In fact, the production of a glass of dairy milk leads to around 3 times more greenhouse gas emissions and uses 9 times more land than plant-based milk. That being said, dairy milk contains many important nutrients that plant milks can’t easily replace.
All of the other milks on our list have their pros and cons, and the real truth is that it’s hard to declare a clear “winner.”
The takeaway is that as long as you shift away from dairy, you’re already helping the environment. All of the alternative milks on our list are more eco-friendly and have health benefits, so what you drink will depend on what you’re looking for and your particular taste preferences.
Even better, the more you diversify when it comes to your morning cup of plant-based milk, the more benefits you and the environment will reap.
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