According to the 2018 Nielsen data, cow milk sales dropped a whopping 6% in a single year leading up to June of 2018, while plant-based milk sales went up 9%, currently amounting to about 13% of all milk sales. A recent survey showed how 48% of the total population are decisively looking for and actively consuming the most sustainable milk available around them.
The trend of “alt milks” has been on the rise for years now, as health and environmental sustainability concerns become household topics of discussion. However, it is worth considering whether relying on nature instead of animals for our daily good needs is actually doing much to curb negative environmental impact.
This is where this article comes in. We will talk about the various alternative milks, and decide which ones qualify as the most sustainable milk options.
How to Assess Sustainability of Milk Alternatives
Needless to mention, a lot of factors come into play in discerning the sustainability of milk products. If you want to gauge a milk’s environmental footprint, factors such as land & water use, greenhouse emissions, chemical runoff, and soil degradation must be considered at every step of the way, right from growing the raw ingredients to the final stage of transportation. Waste management and the utilization of leftover pulp are also environmental concerns that decide the sustainability of these plant-based milk alternatives.
The nutritional value of the most environmentally friendly milk options are not always up to the mark though, and that is an equally valid concern. This is the reason why these should be supplemented with an FDA approved baby formula if fed to toddlers with lactose intolerance or other allergies.
While sustainability and nutritional value might not seem to share any connection, if you think long enough and trace the chain of thought, it becomes clear that there is no point of an environmentally sustainable milk option if it provides next to nil nutritional value.
So, in short a lot goes into determining the most sustainable milk alternatives. Below we have tried to list the different milk alternatives along with the environmental impact they have.
Determining the Most Environmentally Friendly Milk Alternative
1. Coconut Milk
How do they Make Coconut Milk Commercially?
The traditional method for producing coconut milk involves grating the coconut meat, mixing it in hot water, and finally, pressing the liquid through a proper cheesecloth. This produces a lot of rich, fatty liquid known as coconut cream, which can be further processed into coconut oil or double-pressed to make coconut milk.
Environmental Impact of Coconut Milk
Coconuts face a lot of global demands, resulting in farmers resorting to shortcuts such as employing monkeys into cruel labor practices. These innocent creatures are chained to posts and coerced into scaling trees to shake the coconuts loose.
It doesn’t just stop there- the rainforest is being increasingly depleted in favor of planting rows of trees that offer limited biodiversity other than serving our immediate dietary needs.
An investigation by The New York Times conducted between 2007 to 2014 states that rainforests in Indonesia were being cleared at the rate of 3 acres/minute to make room for coconut palm trees. So, is coconut milk sustainable? Not quite, but here’s what you can do: look for coconut products that are certified Fair Trade.
2. Rice Milk
How do they Make Rice Milk Commercially?
Rice milk is commercially produced by pressing rice through a grinding mill, closely followed by filtration and mixing in water. You can make it at home with rice flour and brown rice protein. Simply boiling brown rice with a large quantity of water, followed by blending and filtering the mixture will also do.
Environmental Impact of Rice Milk
Rice milk has been deemed as the more affordable alternative to its nut milk counterparts. The tradeoff is the nutritional value or environmental benefits.
Rice soaks up all water and produces more greenhouse gas emissions than similar vegan milk alternatives. The swampy paddies also tend to release methane into the air, allowing bacteria to grow and get released into the air. So, simply put, rice is one of the worst water pollutants.
3. Almond Milk
How do they Make Almond Milk Commercially?
The Sunshine State of California is the producer of almost 80% of the world’s almond supply. So, if you are in the area, there’s a win for your local products. Almonds are generally grounded or pulverized and then combined with water and finally, filtered to make almond milk.
Often times, emulsifiers like carrageenan are added in commercially manufactured almond milk which is known for causing gastric distress. So the next time you wonder if it was almond milk that made you constipated, it was more likely the additives added to it rather.
Environmental Impact of Almond Milk
Almonds require tons of water, much like any other nut. Now, juxtapose this with another fact that is California’s ongoing water crisis and drought problems. Latest research shows that the accumulated water footprint of one Californian almond is around 3.2 gallons.
If you think the nutritional value of almonds overturns its water footprint, here’s the truth: the process of turning nuts into milk takes away most of its original nutritional content. So, if you ask “is almond milk bad for the environment?” I would probably say a resounding yes.
4. Cashew Milk
How do they Make Cashew Milk Commercially?
Cashew milk is produced in the same way as almond milk, but the former has a more earthy flavor. The cashews are shelled and toasted, then they are soaked in filtered water. Lastly, they are ground into a paste prior to being blended in water. Opposed to cashews being a bit hard to digest for some, cashew milk is fairly easy on the gut.
Environmental Impact of Cashew Milk
The taste and consistency of cashew milk is much similar to almond milk, except the former does not make use of water nearly as much as the latter. Having said that, even cashews are hardly low on water, requiring more of it than seeds or legumes.
So, while cashew milk is known for its sustainable characteristics with its minimal land requirement, where it falters is the inhuman treatment of cashew pickers.
About 60% of the world’s cashews are grown in India, and there are human rights issues galore. Many have boycotted cashews owing to the harsh working conditions, including labor camps where cashews are grown and subsequently processed for cashew milk.
5. Hazelnut Milk
How do they Make Hazelnut Milk Commercially?
Hazelnut milk is essentially made in a technologically advanced way, in the form of Elmhurst’s HydroRelease™ method that uses just water to separate hazelnuts’ nutrients, before reassembling them into a creamy emulsion without any straining necessary!
Environmental Impact of Hazelnut Milk
Hazelnut trees are usually wind pollinated, which means no bees are needed. These nuts thrive on rain and sequester carbon, leading to a net benefit for the climate. Hazelnuts grow in the Pacific Northwest, so for people in the region, these are no short of local superstars!
They provide a decent amount of protein and healthy fats, barring numerous other nutrients, without the downsides of almonds. The cost of hazelnut milk is one of the principal concerns, since its availability issues are yet to be met.
6. Hemp Milk
How do they Make Hemp Milk Commercially?
Hemp milk has been available in the States for a while, but it needed to be imported owing to laws against growing hemp. Since 2018’s farm bill legalized hemp farming, hemp milk will gradually gain some momentum.
They are a valuable nutrition source since they contain protein (with a near complete amino acid profile) and healthy fats. Hemps seeds are blended with water, along with a few additional ingredients, to create hemp milk.
Environmental Impact of Hemp Milk
Throughout history, the importance of hemp has been unmatched due to its versatility (food, medicines, fiber) and hardiness. It is effective in building soil health, requiring very few pesticides due to its hardy nature.
A study by the European Environmental Agency compared the environmental impact of 16 common crops across multiple factors such as pesticides, erosion and water use, and ranked hemp in the top 5.
Yes, hemp farming does require comparatively more water than oat, soy, or pea, but it is still much less than almond or cow milk. Lastly, hemp milk contains more protein than almond milk or oat milk, but less than soy milk or pea milk. Hemp milk offers healthy fats.
7. Pea Milk
How do they Make Pea Milk Commercially?
The newest kid in the block, pea milk is yet another great vegan milk alternative. Factories split yellow peas from the Midwestern states and Canada, mill them into flour and finally, add water along with a few additional ingredients such as sunflower oil and vitamins. With an impressive amino acid profile, pea milk happens to be rich in protein as compared to other non-dairy milk alternatives.
Environmental Impact of Pea Milk
Pea shares the most similarities with soy milk, both being legumes. Peas tend to fix nitrogen in the soil, in turn reducing the need for nitrogen-based fertilizers. They also require much less water than other crops. They are grown in places where there isn’t a scarcity of water, something that cannot be said about almonds.
If produced properly, greenhouse gas emissions of pea milk can be as less as that of soy milk, and it can still retain much more nutrients than other milk alternatives. Even if peas are not grown organically, the cool and dry climates ensure much less use of pesticides.
8. Oat Milk
How do they Make Oat Milk Commercially?
Oat milk is usually made by combining whole oat groats with water along with a natural enzyme blend. In the process, the enzyme breaks the oats down into liquid parts. The insoluble fiber is then strained out, leaving in the hearty and healthy beta-glucans. Many companies also use the mechanical breakdown process involving blending and straining.
Environmental Impact of Oat Milk
According to an LCA study, the production of oat milk results in 80% lower greenhouse gas emissions and 60 % less energy use compared to cow milk. Moreover, it uses about 80% less land and fairly less amount of fresh water. One liter of oat milk only requires 48 liters of water as opposed to a massive 628 liters needed to produce one liter of cow milk.
Oat milk is also more nutrient-dense than almond but not as much as soy, pea, or hemp. Here’s a road bump: oats are often contaminated with glyphosate of unsafe levels as farmers spray roundup on the crops before harvest.
9. Soy Milk
How do they Make Soy Milk Commercially?
It can very well be argued that soy is the true plant-based milk. For one, it has been around for much longer than most milk alternatives, and its texture, taste, and nutrition profile make it much more appealing. They are most similar to cow milk, so if you are having a hard time letting go of cow milk, soy is a good place to start.
Soybeans are essentially legumes with roots in Asia, but they’re now grown everywhere with a massive chunk of fields in the center of the States. Soybeans are pressed, followed by their insoluble fiber being removed. Lastly, other ingredients such as vitamins (for fortification) are blended in.
Environmental Impact of Soy Milk
If we are trying to decide the most environmentally friendly milk out there, soy milk is a clear winner. Be it sustainability or protein content, soy wins all across the board. For the longest part, soy was misunderstood as a plant-based phytoestrogen which women should avoid to avert risks of breast cancer.
But the myth has now been busted with the truth being quite the contrary to the accusation: soy appears to have some protective value if eaten in moderation. In fact, a moderate amount of soy is healthy and can help keep hormones in check.
Here is the primary environmental drawback to soy milk: they are grown in massive quantities all across the world to feed livestock for dairy and meat production.
This requires large swaths of rainforest in the Amazon to be burned to make room for soy farms. Here’s what you can do in this scenario: a little research goes a long way. Read the carton to look for soy milk that is produced from organic soybeans grown in the States or Canada.
Verdict | Plant Based Milk Alternatives are All More Environmentally Friendly
These are the most sustainable milk alternatives out there. If you are wondering why you should make the switch to vegan milk, the reality about unethical manufacturing practices are but a simple Google search away.
With there being such a wide variety of sustainable milk alternatives right now, why not try to choose an option that sates your dietary requirement while also being mindful of its environmental footprints? The best part is that since there are so many options, you can pick and choose any and avoid boredom or limitations in your dietary choices.
Did we miss anything? Tell us in the comments below.