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Plant-Based Milk Alternatives: Are they Eco-Friendly? Which Option is Best?

The UK has the fifth dietary carbon footprint in Europe and dairy consumption constitutes a big part of it. In fact, some studies have even shown that a vegetarian diet including dairy might be more carbon-intensive than consuming meat once a week! This means that the pleasure of having a milky coffee has a significant impact on the environment.

According to a 2018 study by Oxford University, a glass (200ml) of cow’s milk produces around 0.6kg of CO2. This is due to the fact that cows are one of the biggest methane producers (burpers) in the world. This makes dairy three times more impactful than the equivalent of any non-dairy milk.

Data from Tabitha Whiting

The good news for plant-based fans is that these days, plant, grain and nut milks make up 10% of the total milk market. Supermarkets aisles display a horde of non-dairy alternative. The problem with being spoilt for choice, though, is not knowing which option to go for! Between soy, coconut, macadamia, almond and oat milk, there’s plenty of environmental and nutritional factors to take into consideration. And, not to forget, the Taste factor is also pretty important!

Soy Milk

If you’ve decided to replace the cup of dairy milk you drink every day with soy milk, congratulations! According to a report by UCLA, you’ve reduced emissions by 63.6 kg in a year. That’s the equivalent of the CO2 absorbed by 6.4 trees! It also requires only a third of the water to produce its dairy equivalent. Soy milk’s environmental Achille’s heel is land use. The crop is in such high demand that parts of the Amazon are being destroyed to produce it. It’s worth noting, however, that 85% of global soybeans production is either used to make oil or fed directly to livestock.

Taste-wise, soy milk has gone a long way compared to when it was first introduced in the 90s. It now comes in sweetened and unsweetened varieties, fortified with calcium and Vit D. Nutritionally speaking, soy milk has the highest protein content of the plant-based reign. It has the same amount of protein than cow’s milk, making it an ideal substitute.

Oat Milk

Popular Swedish oat milk brand Oatly conducted a life cycle analysis of oat milk to find that land use and greenhouse gas emissions are about 80% lower than for cow’s milk. However, there isn’t much independent research available on this topic right now, so bear in mind that these results might be slightly skewed. Nutrition-wise, oat milk is the obvious choice for nut allergy sufferers and those of us who with prefer a low-fat diet (fat, and protein content, is low.) Careful though, as oat milk is higher in carbohydrates, and hence sugars, than other alternatives. Taste-wise, its creamy consistency and neutral flavour make it a perfect option for a nice frothy morning cappuccino.

Coconut Milk

Environmentally, coconut farming is considered low impact. It doesn’t require the use of pesticides and fertilizers and is also pretty low on water use. Coconut palm tree plantations are good carbon sinks, adding reduction in greenhouse gas benefits to their cultivation. However, when consuming coconut milk one must consider the carbon load of transporting it to the Northern Hemisphere. Also, because most are grown in tropical regions where climate change has wreaked havoc on trees and impact yield, it might not be an eco-friendly option for long.

Nutritionally, compared to other nut and plant-based milks, coconut milk is high in saturated fats. Some nutritionists believe that it is important to reduce consumption of saturated fats overall, as they tend to increase cholesterol levels in the body. However, others think that plant-derived “sat-fats” are not as detrimental than their animal-derived counterparts. It’s sweet and nutty taste makes it the perfect addition for berry-based smoothies!

Almond Milk

Almond milk’s reputation has been through the wringer in the last few years. The Guardian reported that it takes a staggering 6,062 litres to produce 1 L of almond milk. What’s most worrying, however, is that it’s still less than water consumption required to produce 1 L of cow’s milk! Almond-milk water issues are mainly down to the fact that 80% of the world’s almonds are produced in California, notorious for its droughts. Additionally, because of the increase in market demand, farmers have replaced other types of crops with them. This has caused various issues linked to monocrops, such as loss of soil biodiversity.

From a nutritional standpoint, almond milk is one of the healthiest (for those who don’t suffer from nut allergies!) The low fat and calory intake make it an excellent adjunct for smoothies or protein shakes. However, it’s obviously a definite no-no for anyone suffering from an almond and nut tree allergy.

What to choose?

There are many factors that come into play when choosing a type of milk which is cruelty-free and eco-friendly. Clearly, each one of us needs to take into account personal taste preference and nutritional needs. The important thing is to remember that switching to a plant-based alternative is kinder to planet and animals alike!

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