By Emeran Mayer, MD and Juliette Frank
Over the past few years the milk section at grocery stores has seen a dramatic change. Now, alongside the dairy milk there are countless options of non-dairy milk alternatives to put in your coffee or cereal. The two main reasons for this recent shift from dairy milk to plant-based alternatives are environmental impact and nutrition. With climate change quickly becoming an urgent issue that cannot be ignored, the environmental impacts of the dairy industry are being taken into consideration by consumers. The U.S. dairy industry is highly subsidized, bringing up questions about the long standing USDA dietary recommendations of milk consumption.
When choosing the kind of milk to buy there are several factors to consider: Which option is the healthiest? Which one comes with the least environmental impacts? Looking solely at environmental impact, non-dairy milks are definitely the more sustainably friendly choice in comparison to dairy milk. The director of health campaigns at the Natural Resources Defense Council, explains that no plant-based milk is equal to the water usage of dairy milk. Water is used in every step of the dairy production process: to hydrate cows, clean facilities, and for feed. When comparing the environmental impacts of all milk options there are many factors to consider: water usage, greenhouse gas emissions, land use, transportation, and how and where crops are grown and processed.
One of the most popular non-dairy milk options is almond milk. Out of all the plant-based options, almonds require the most amount of water to produce. About 90% of almonds are grown in California where water is scarce, creating more of an environmental stressor. Even so, the production of dairy milk still has more than four times the global warming potential than almond milk. From a nutrition perspective, almond milk is low in calories, fat, and protein making it a healthy option.
For people with nut allergies, soy milk is a better option although there are some environmental concerns to be aware of. Soybeans are grown using monoculture, which drives deforestation due to the harmful effects on the soil and climate. From a nutrition standpoint, soy milk’s protein level is comparable to that of dairy milk and it is usually less processed than other non-dairy options.
Another alternative, oat milk, has blown up in popularity in the past few months. Because of its creamy consistency and neutral flavor it is extremely popular in coffee shops. Oats are fairly climate-friendly and do not require much water or land use and emit low levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Nutritionally, oat milk is lower in protein and fat and higher in carbohydrates than other alternatives, but good for people with nut and soy allergies.
There are many more options beyond these three currently in the market and I’m sure more will continue to come out. Overall, plant-based alternatives are nutritionally a good option as long as you are careful to watch out for added sugars and preservatives. From an environmental standpoint, plant-based milks are always a superior choice to dairy milk when making the better choice for the climate. This recent push for non-dairy milk alternatives has opened up a whole new market and is a step in the right direction for awareness of the environmental impacts of our food.