Kristie Leong M.D. is a family practitioner who believes in the power of nutrition and a healthy lifestyle to prevent and fight illness.
Every day, new information comes out about what individuals can do to help mitigate climate change. You hear a lot about food and how it relates to carbon emissions and global warming. What you put on your plate matters!
Did you know more than 60% of Americans drink cow's milk regularly? In terms of greenhouse gas emissions from foods, dairy products rank eighth (and third in terms of land use).
Why does producing dairy stress the environment? It takes more land to produce dairy milk than milk alternatives. A study found that producing dairy milk led to three times the emissions of producing alternative milk.
Alternative Milks Are More Environmentally Friendly
Alternative milk also lasts longer than dairy milk, so you have more opportunity to drink it before it goes bad. So, there's less waste.
Ultra-pasteurized alternative milk can last for weeks to months without refrigeration. Their longer shelf life is one of the reasons plant-based milk alternatives are so popular right now.
Switching to non-dairy milk alternatives is one way to do your part for the planet. What is the best alternative milk for the environment? Let's look at some options and the impact they have on environmental health.
Oat milk is the new kid on the block. It's made from oats, a great source of fiber, protein, and healthy fats. A single cup of oat milk has about 3 grams of protein—more than almond milk (1 gram). Oat milk has more protein than most other plant-based milk, except for soy milk with 7 grams of protein.
Oat milk has around 2 grams of fiber in one cup, less than soy milk, at around 3 grams of fiber per cup. Fiber helps lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels while improving bowel health by keeping things moving smoothly through your system.
What about the environmental impact of oat milk? Oat milk is a healthy choice for the planet. The production of 1 liter of oat milk uses about 9.5 liters (2.5 gallons) of water, which is less than almond or soy milk. Oats are also a staple crop for many farmers, helping to keep production costs down and making it more widely available than other plant milk.
Soy milk is another popular milk alternative. It’s made from soybeans, which are a good source of protein and contain other nutrients like iron, zinc, and vitamin B12.
Soy milk is also naturally rich in calcium. A cup of unsweetened soy milk contains about 300 mg of calcium. Most brands fortify soy milk to help you get your daily recommended amount (which can be hard to do without dairy products).
There are other benefits to drinking soy milk: it’s low in saturated fat and high in polyunsaturated fat (which may boost heart health). Plus it has no lactose for those with lactose intolerance. While these factors make soy a replacement for cow's milk, there are other things to consider before making the switch.
Is soy milk a good alternative milk for the environment? Yes, soy milk is a good alternative milk for the environment. Soybeans are a renewable resource and require less water to produce than cow's milk. Soymilk also has a lower carbon footprint than cow's milk.
Almond milk is the most popular plant-based alternative to cow's milk. Almond milk isn't as nutritious as almonds since almond milk contains only a few almonds. Its creamy texture comes from added fillers.
Commercial almond milk is low in protein, relative to cow's milk, but it does contain substantial quantities of vitamin E. Some brands fortify almond milk with calcium and vitamin D, so the nutritional content can vary. You can buy sweetened or unsweetened versions.
Although almond milk’s popularity soared over the past few years due to its creamy texture and health benefits, it has many drawbacks. It takes a lot of water to grow almonds—up to 150 gallons per pound (1 gallon = 3.78 liters). California, where 80 percent of the world’s almonds are grown, suffers from drought every year.
Commercial cashew milk is like almond milk in that it contains few nuts and lots of thickeners. It has a sweet, nutty flavor that pairs well with coffee, tea, or cereal. Like almond milk, it's low in protein and contains less vitamin E than almond milk.
One serving of unsweetened cashew milk contains around 25 calories and 1 gram of protein. Unless the manufacturer adds calcium and vitamin D to cashew milk, which some do, it isn't a good source of either nutrient. Read the label to see if the version you buy contains added vitamin D or calcium.
In terms of the environmental impact, cashew milk is similar to almond and other nut-based milk. It takes a lot of water to make cashew milk, which increases its impact on the environment.
Coconut milk is another creamy milk alternative made from the meat of coconuts. It has a slightly sweet, nutty flavor that goes well in smoothies and baking recipes. One cup (240 ml) of unsweetened coconut milk contains 45 calories and may be fortified with added calcium and vitamin D.
Coconut milk is one of the most sustainable alternative milk options in terms of production and consumption. In terms of production. Coconut milk requires less energy to produce than other plant-based milk, which means it's better for the environment. It also requires less deforestation.
For example, soybeans produce multiple times more greenhouse gas emissions from planting to harvest than coconuts do. This is because coconuts need less fertilizer and water to grow than other plants do, so there's less waste involved.
If you're looking for an alternative that won't hurt the planet’s resources as much, coconut milk is a good choice.
The Best Alternative Milk for the Environment
What is the best alternative milk for the environment? Most milk alternatives are more environmentally friendly than dairy, but coconut milk stands out as a more sustainable and planet-friendly option than other milk alternatives. Oat milk and soy milk are also more sustainable options than nut milks.
It's good to know that there are so many options available and that we can reduce our impact on the environment by making conscious choices. Choose wisely!
- "The 7 Healthiest Milk Options." 12 Nov. 2019, https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/healthiest-milk.
- "Milk Alternatives: Nutritional and Environmental Impacts." 04 Feb. 2021, https://sites.uci.edu/morningsignout/2021/02/04/milk-alternatives-nutritional-and-environmental-impacts/.
- "Dairy vs. plant-based milk: what are the environmental impacts?." 19 Jan. 2022, https://ourworldindata.org/environmental-impact-milks.
- Ercin AE, Aldaya MM, Hoekstra AY. The water footprint of soy milk and soy burger and equivalent animal products. Ecological Indicators. 2012;18:392-402. doi:10.1016/j.ecolind.2011.12.009
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.