The consumption of plant-based milk has been on the up in recent years. Many have switched from cow’s milk to milk alternatives such as almond, soy, and oat milk. While some are utilizing these plant-based options due to allergens and food intolerances, others are choosing to drink them with animal welfare and health and environmental concerns in mind. Compared to milk alternatives, conventional cow’s milk is more detrimental to both the environment and human health.
Making the Switch
Conventional milk contains a high omega-6-to-omega-3 ratio and research shows that excessive amounts of omega-6 fatty acids contribute to cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. Avoiding dairy milk promotes a healthier lifestyle, however, it is not safe to assume that all plant-based milk is good for your health. When purchasing milk alternatives, it is important to be mindful of the ingredients within them (as a general rule, the fewer ingredients, the better). Avoid plant-based milk with sneaky additives like gums, fillers, inflammatory oils, and added sugars as these can cause digestive issues and inflammation as well.
Conventional cow’s milk is also responsible for three times as much greenhouse gas emissions, requires ten times as much land, uses two to twenty times as much fresh water, and therefore creates much higher levels of eutrophication than plant-based options. Choosing to drink any alternative form of milk significantly reduces one’s ecological footprint, however, plant-based milks come with their own environmental impacts. While there are pros and cons to be weighed for all types of plant milk, some are more environmentally friendly than others.
Almond milk, a fan favorite, requires the use of minimal land and is responsible for the lowest amount of greenhouse gas emissions among the plant milk. However, almond milk may be one of the least sustainable milk alternatives due to the immense amount of water it demands. The majority of our almonds are grown in the frequently drought-stricken state of California and research estimates that 3.2 gallons of water are required to grow a single California almond.
Requiring less than a tenth of the water almonds need to grow, soy milk (the original plant milk) also generates a low amount of greenhouse gasses. Soybeans do, however, require much more land than almonds as they are grown in mass amounts both globally and locally to produce vegetable oil and feed livestock. Studies show that the United States is responsible for 35% of worldwide soy production and that a 4-cup serving of soy milk requires the use of 1 square mile of land per year.
Oat milk has recently gained significant popularity and is now featured as an alternative option to conventional milk and cream in nearly all coffee chains. Like soy and almond milk, the greenhouse gas emissions of oat milk are low. Research shows that the production of oat milk requires slightly more water than soy milk, but much less than almond milk. The use of the toxic weed-killer Roundup is a concern as it often leaves oat products containing unsafe levels of glyphosate. Opting for oat milk brands that use organic oats/certified glyphosate-free products can reduce your risk of exposure.
Although not as mainstream as the other plant-based options, hemp milk is considered environmentally friendly as it is sourced from a sustainable crop. According to research, hemp aids in the production of healthy soil and requires minimal pesticides/herbicides to grow as it is naturally disease resistant. Hemp milk is still a bit more water-intensive than oat and soy milk but delivers more protein and healthy fat to consumers than almond and oat milk.
Overall, there is not one plant-based milk that is overwhelmingly better than the rest as the “winner” will vary depending on what environmental and health factors mean the most to you. If conserving water is your priority, almond milk will be out of the question. If land preservation is your top concern, you will leave the soy milk on the shelf. Looking for a milk alternative with your health in mind? Choosing organic/glyphosate-free oat milk or hemp milk is your best bet. Having so many plant-based options to choose from can be overwhelming, but simply making the switch from dairy milk is a great start and one step closer to a healthier planet and a healthier you.
About the Author: Rachael Filarski is a studying holistic health coach with the American Fitness Professionals & Associates and a graduate of Monmouth University. This blog post displays her knowledge of holistic health through the environmental lens. – Follow her instagram @racholistic ! –