Plant-based milks are gaining more and more popularity in North America as more people than ever are lactose intolerant or boycotting the dairy industry.
The dairy industry has a bad reputation and for good reason. It’s killing our planet. Cows require a lot of resources to be farmed which leads to deforestation. Not just in the dairy industry but in the beef industry as well. Any time cows are required, rain forests are being chopped down to make room and it’s impacting our ecosystems.
Cows also naturally require a lot of water. Far more water than any plant-based milk on this list. I don’t think I need to explain why water waste is a problem.
Methane gas is also released from cows which is incredibly harmful to our planet. They generate thane gas through their digestion and their waste. (Poop) The amount of methane gas released can have to do with how many cows are together and what time of feed they’re being fed. All I know is methane gas is terrible for the environment.
Cows that were wild or not being factory farmed only produce a fraction of methane that the ones being farmed do.
I don’t like to use scare tactics or shame people into eating less meat or boycotting dairy but we all know the animals are being mistreated. Cows don’t just produce milk, they have to be mothers first. So female cows are often impregnated and then their calves are ripped away from them and either raised to be meat or veal. Then we drink their milk. Seems pretty jacked up to me.
Not to mention the abuse and often small spaces they’re forced into.
Cows are intelligent creatures. They want their babies and their moms. They can even play with balls and have best friends. We’ve been mistreating them for too long and they and our planet are suffering because of it.
So you’ve decided to cut out dairy. Great! Now, which milk alternative is the most sustainable option?
While I would argue that any milk is better than cow/animal milk, there are still some dairy-free options that are incredibly resource-intensive and are also damaging the planet.
Plant Based Milk and their Environmental Impact:
We’re going to be looking at 5 of the most popular plant-based milk options and each of their pros and cons.
1. Almond Milk
Almond milk was my first endeavor into plant-based milk about 5 years ago when I had to cut dairy from my diet. I instantly loved the taste and texture.
- Almond milk has virtually no cholesterol and is very high in antioxidants.
- It’s not cow milk.
- 80% of the world’s almond supply is produced in California. Meaning if you don’t live there, it’s most likely being imported which racks up a lot of carbon emissions.
- Almonds have a large water footprint using an estimated 3.2 gallons of water for a single almond. (Still less water than used for cows though)
- The “milking” process gets rid of most of the almond’s nutrients.
- Very few almonds are actually in each carton you buy. So it’s basically just water and other flavors.
Not gonna lie, almond milk is probably still the best tasting plant-based milk in my opinion. But it has one of the largest environmental impacts. It’s best to just avoid it at all costs if you can.
2. Soy Milk
Arguably the first popular milk alternative that made its way onto the scene. I remember growing up having cousins who were lactose intolerant and would drink soy milk. I thought it was disgusting. But it’s an option.
- Soybeans use less than a tenth of the water that almonds use to grow.
- Soy milk is nutrient-dense and contains a good amount of Vitamins A, B-12, and D, Calcium, and omega 3 fatty acids.
- It contains as much protein as cows milk but a fraction of the calories.
- Soybeans produce far fewer greenhouse gases than dairy.
- So much soy is being grown that parts of the Amazon are being destroyed in order to plant.
- Some soybeans have been genetically modified to withstand herbicide glyphosate which results in out ecosystems being polluted and has even been linked to cancer risks among farmworkers. (Always be sure to check the sourcing when buying soymilk and only buy non-GMO)
Soy milk is a fine alternative. There are a lot of nutrients and health benefits to drinking (non-GMO) soy milk. I would suggest that soy milk not be your first choice, but it’s by no means the worst plant-based milk on this list.
3. Oat Milk
Ah, the world’s newest obsession. Oat milk has been taking over because it’s so simple to make and it’s creamy texture makes it perfect for coffee and is being used in many cafes.
- Oats release 80% less greenhouse gas emissions and about 60% less energy than cows.
- They require 80% less land. Deforestation has not been linked to the oat industry.
- They require the least amount of water to make.
- Depending on the brand, oat milk can have traces of roundup or other pesticides. Always make sure to purchase a Non-GMO one.
- May contain sugar and other additives like oil (I always try to find oat milk with the least amount of ingredients or make it myself!)
- No significant nutrition value
Oat milk is probably the most sustainable option when it comes to plant-based options. Just always be sure to read the ingredients.
4. Hemp Milk
I personally haven’t tried hemp milk so I can’t speak about it personally. But I do know it is gaining some popularity.
- Hemp is effective for building soil health
- Requires very few pesticides
- Uses little water to grow
- Low in Saturated fats and cholesterol
- Hemp plants breathe in 4 times more Co2 than trees
- Hemp farming was only made legal in 2018 so most hemp products including milk had to be imported giving it higher carbon emissions. Hemp farming is slowly becoming more popular in the US.
- Probably has the lowest protein of all the plant-based milk at 1.2g per glass.
- Low in calcium and can have a very strong nutty flavor.
Hemp milk seems like a pretty strong contender when it comes to milk alternatives. Based on these facts I would say it’s a pretty sustainable option and now I need to try it.
5. Coconut Milk
Other than almond milk, coconut milk was one of the first dairy-free milk options I tried. To me, almond and coconut milk were the only plant-based milk to exist. Boy was I wrong.
- Water use is relatively low.
- Has a ton of health benefits including improved digestion, lowered blood pressure, and cholesterol, it’s rich in electrolytes and can prevent fatigue.
- Coconut trees filter out carbon dioxide.
- Coconuts are tropical fruits and not grown in North America, so they are almost always imported creating excess carbon emissions.
- The coconut industry exploits their workers with a lot of them earning less than a dollar a day.
Coconut milk is not terrible for the environment or for you with its many health benefits, but it is terrible for those who are doing the planting and harvesting. For that reason alone I will not support the coconut milk industry.
We’d all love to point fingers at the dairy industry and blame them for climate change and while they do play a huge part in it, they’re no the only culprit. Even plant-based milk can have a rather large environmental impact.
I hope this post helps you to understand your options and make the best-educated decision on which plant-based milk is right for you!
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