The plant milk industry has exploded over recent years. Plant milk sales in the USA have grown by 61% over the last 5 years, and in Australia $200 million of vegan ‘milk’ was purchased in 2017 alone.
Only a few years ago it was hard to find dairy-free milk in cafes and restaurants. Today, that’s totally changed. In the small town where we live, there’s almost always a choice of several different plant milks everywhere we go. You’ll probably find the same in most cities.
With such a big selection of plant milks on offer, it’s hard to know which one to choose. While it’s pretty clear that whichever plant milk you choose will have a lower impact on the environment than cow’s milk, there’s still a lot of difference between them.
Actually, working all of this out is a tricky business. There’s a lot of variation between brands of the same type of milk, and the place where you live can have a big effect on the environmental impact of your choices.
Dr Michalis Hadjikakou, from Deakin University’s school of life and environmental sciences, says:
“There is complexity [and] nuance depending on where people live [and] the specific product that they are looking at – not just the type of milk, but the specific brand, the specific product may have a very different supply chain compared to another very complementary product. So, there is no definitive answer.”
We’re going to try to cut through the confusion and run through the pros and cons of the different types of plant milks for your health and for the environment.
QUALITY AND SUBSTANCE
Plant-based milks are made from nuts, legumes and grains which have amazing nutritional benefits when eaten whole. However, most plant milks on the market contain a small percentage of the ingredient which gives the milk its name. For example, almond milk often contains around 1% almonds. The rest is simply water. So, while almond milk is nutritious, you’re only getting a small number of almonds per glass, compared to say eating a handful of them.
Check the labels, some plant milks will contain more of the nut, legume or grain that they’re made from, even between brands. The protein content, for example, can vary wildly between brands.
It’s important to choose plant milks which are labelled ‘unsweetened’ as some of them do have added sugar. Very often the same brand will have both sweetened and unsweetened options, so choose one without the added sugar.
Note: Cow’s milk contains a type of sugar called lactose. 250 ml of cow’s milk contains about 12 g of sugar, compared to 0g of sugar in unsweetened almond or coconut milk or 1g of sugar in soy milk. And the calories per serve are also much lower with the plant milks.
Many plant milks are fortified with nutrients such as calcium, iron and vitamins A, D and B12. Some of these nutrients, such as vitamin D and B12, are hard to obtain on a plant-based diet, so consuming fortified plant milks can provide you with a regular and easy-to-consume source.
Each brand is different, so you need to check the label to see which ones have been fortified, and what percentage of your daily needs they provide for.
You might want to keep an eye out for brands that add vegetable oils to their milks (canola, rape seed oil, sunflower oil) as these types of oils can cause inflammation in your body.
These oils are obviously added by the manufacturers to give the milk the desired consistency, but will do nothing to promote good health. Best to stay away from them. Again, checking the ingredients on a particular product is the only way to know.
Almond milk is great in shakes, on cereal and in tea. It’s a little lighter than oat milk and has a delicious nutty taste.
It’s a good source of magnesium and vitamin E, but has a pretty low protein content when compared to other plant milks. This, in part, is due to the fact that only about 1% of the product is actually almonds, with most of the remainder being water. You’d need to find a brand that has fortified the milk with vitamins or minerals to make this worthwhile on a purely nutritional basis.
Environmental concerns: Almonds require a lot of water for their production. In fact, 1 almond requires 5 litres of water (still not as bad as cow’s milk which requires 100 litres of water to produce 100ml of milk).
80% of the World’s supply of water-hungry almonds is grown in California, an area which is seriously affected by drought. Due to the massive worldwide demand for almonds, there are huge monocrop plantations, and pesticides are widely used.
If you live outside of the USA, and want to avoid adding to these problems, try to find almond milk made from locally sourced crops. And, choose almonds from organic agriculture to avoid the pesticides. You’ll have to read the label to find this out, and maybe even contact the company if the information isn’t readily available.
Otherwise, buy almonds and try making your own!
If you are a coffee-lover and haven’t tried oat milk in your favourite brew – you’re missing out!
Oat milk gives a fantastic creamy texture and taste to coffee, and is my number one choice of dairy-free milks for this purpose. Baristas seem to agree, serving it up as their plant milk of choice in cafes around the world.
Good quality coffee is packed with compounds called polyphenols, which have a number of health benefits that come as a bonus with your morning cup. Of course, you can use oat milk for anything you like – coffee is simply our favourite use.
Nutritionally, oat milk has relatively low protein content compared with other plant milks, but does provide a good source of fibre. Again, a lot of the nutritional benefits of oats aren’t conveyed across to oat milk, because it’s so watered down that the nutritional benefits are greatly diminished.
Oats have a lower environmental impact than almonds or rice as they are mainly winter crops and typically rely on rainfall. As a result, they need much less water for their production – about 6 times less than almonds.
Soy milk has a high protein content and is considered by many to be a fantastic source of plant-based protein.
There are however a number of health concerns associated with soy consumption, which some researchers feel should cause you to reduce or avoid soy altogether:
It can disrupt normal hormone function and can cause thyroid issues.
It contains compounds called which bind minerals, and make it harder for our bodies to absorb essential minerals such as magnesium, iron, calcium and zinc from the food we eat.
(Tip: When it comes to other sorts of soy products – such as tofu – it’s a good idea to buy fermented versions, as the fermentation process alters the composition of the tofu and reduces the amount of phytates.)
Lots of soy comes from GMO crops (Genetically Modified Organisms) which have been modified to be able to survive certain pesticides, namely the infamous ‘roundup’. As a result, these crops are typically covered in pesticides, and if you want to avoid the risk of having chemicals on your plate, you should look for products which come from non-GMO or organic soy crops.
It’s not always easy to identify this on packages, so if you do want to drink soy milk you might want to check with a couple of companies offering their product in your country.
Environmental concerns: Soy is often attacked for its harmful effects on the environment, and especially for its contribution to deforestation. Huge areas of rainforest are chopped down each year to make way for this crop, especially in the Amazon. While this is a huge problem, most of the blame doesn’t really lie at the feet of people who consume soy products. Most of the soy crops aren’t used to make tofu or soy milk – they’re used to feed animals.
The environmental impact will vary depending on where you live. In Australia, for example, much of the plant milks on the market come from home grown soy beans, and so don’t contribute in the same way to rainforest deforestation.
Hemp milk has a light, nutty flavour and is a fantastic alternative to cow’s milk.
Hemp is often described as a ‘complete protein’, meaning it contains all 9 of the essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) in the correct proportions that our body needs to maintain good health. In fact, it isn’t really a complete protein, as it lacks in the amino acid lysine. It is however a really fantastic source of plant-based protein – in combination with other sources.
It’s also a good source of Omega 3 – an essential fatty acid that our bodies require for good health (this isn’t a nutrition article – but it’s worth pointing out that the type of omega 3 in hemp milk is called ALA – the precursor your body needs to create EPA and DHA Omega 3s which have incredible health benefits. Many people are poor at converting ALA to EPA and DHA which is why you might want to consider supplementing with an algal supplement rich in EPA and DHA if you’re on a strictly plant-based diet).
Environmental concerns: Hemp seems to be the answer to many of our environmental issues. As well as being really nutritious, hemp grows naturally, uses relatively little water, and doesn’t require the use of herbicides or pesticides.
Hemp can absorb more carbon dioxide than trees, which means that growing hemp can actually help to offset global warming. In addition to this, hemp is a really versatile crop and all of the plant can be used for different purposes, so there’s no waste.
The downside with hemp is that it’s expensive at the moment, although this is likely to change as demand increases. Watch this space for the continued rise in the use of hemp products as an environmentally sensible option.
Some people love the taste of coconut added to their coffee or tea, but for others it’s a little overpowering. Due to its creaminess, we like to use it as a dairy substitute when cooking and baking.
Coconut milk has a low protein content but is packed with healthy fats. Again, a lot of water is added to the product which you’d buy in the shops, and so the nutritional value is greatly reduced.
Environmental concerns: The environmental impact of growing coconuts is pretty low as they require very little water, relative to other crops. The issue with coconuts is that they are grown in a limited amount of tropical countries and, depending where you live, it might not be possible to source them locally. As a result, you need to consider the environmental impact of transporting them large distances.
Rice milk is pretty similar in texture and taste to cow’s milk, but it has a very low protein content.
Growing rice puts a lot of strain on the environment, as it requires huge amounts of water to do so. In this way, its impact is similar to almond milk.
Rice is grown around the world so should be fairly easy to find a locally grown rice milk brand.
Macadamia milk is fairly new to the plant milk party, but seems to be catching on quickly. It has a thick and creamy texture and goes great with coffee and tea.
Macadamias require much less water to grow than some other plant milks. They’re native to Australia, so if you live here then they’re a great choice in terms of avoiding the environmental impact of transporting them large distances.
They’re also grown in abundance in Hawaii, so depending on where you live you need to consider how far they are being transported to reach you.
They provide a good amount of protein along with compounds called flavonoids which act as antioxidants and can help to protect you against illness.
As with all plant milks, the amount of nutrition you will gain from them is much less than you would get from eating the nut directly, as they contain so much water.
Any plant milk will have a smaller environmental footprint than cow’s milk, so from that perspective any choice you make will be a step in the right direction. But beyond that, the choice you make will be influenced by where you live, and what brands are available.
As far as nutrition goes, any plant milk will be a watered-down version of the ingredient which gives it its name. You’d do far better eating the nut or legume that the plant milk comes from than drinking the plant milk itself. But then, not everything is about nutrition. We all enjoy adding milk to our coffee, tea and cereals, and we’re looking for good alternatives to cow’s milk.
To maximise on the nutrition, look for brands which have fortified their product with vitamins and minerals. If you are on a plant-based diet, keep an eye out for nutrients which are hard to get from plants – such as B12 and vitamin D.
There are some great options out there, but for the health benefits and the low environmental impact, our plant milk winner has to be hemp milk for all of these reasons:
- Hemp contains all the amino acids needed by the body and while not being a “complete protein” as it’s sometimes described, it is a great source of plant-based protein.
- It’s a good source of omega 3
- Hemp requires relatively little water in comparison with other crops used to make plant milks.
- It’s a very hardy plant requiring little or no pesticides and fertilizers
- All of the hemp plant can be used, so there is little waste from its production.
The downside is that hemp milk may be a little more expensive than some of the other options. If it’s more than you want to spend to splash in your morning coffee, macadamia, oat or coconut milks are good options as far as both nutrition and the environment go.
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