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Cow’s milk has long been pushed aside, thanks to the range of extensive dairy alternatives on the market. From macadamia nuts to pea sprouts, soy, and of course the recent star of the show, oat, more and more of us are favouring dairy-free alternatives for our go-to source of milk. There are a few reasons people are making the switch, like being lactose intolerant or simply enjoying the flavour of a plant-based alternative more.
But what does this shift to dairy-free mean for the planet? Ahead, we look at common milk alternatives to understand how sustainable their production is and what that means for you as a consumer.
Farming and Production
Cow’s milk is closely tied to cattle production and has been under a lot of scrutiny for the large amount of methane gas produced into the atmosphere over a cow’s lifespan. By this measure alone, the farming and production of almond, soy, oat and rice milk have been considerably less polluting to the environment.
However, the farming and production of these dairy alternatives take into account other environmental effects like water and land use.
Amongst all the non-dairy alternatives, almond milk is the least pollutive and intensive in land use, but it requires close to 130 pints of water to produce one single glass of almond milk. Aside from water use, almond and most nut trees absorb carbon and are known to produce woody biomass upon decay.
Some argue that growing nut trees, or particularly almond trees, encourages mono-cropping which is problematic for the land in the long run. Mono cropping happens when the same crop is planted on the same land annually, which weakens the plants’ future offsprings and make them more susceptible to diseases.
Like almond trees, rice milk is also found to use a lot of water in its production, and is one of the higher greenhouse gas-emitting milks to produce since methane-producing bacteria develop in rice paddies. That said, the environmental impact should arguably be considered in relation to the several other uses of rice and not solely be attributed to rice milk.
On the other hand, soy milk is known to be the least harmful to the environment in terms of water and land use. It has also been used for millennia in many parts of China before it became popular in other parts of the world. The upside to soy milk is that the crop has many uses for commercial uses, with a large part of the output going to feed livestock.
A good rule of thumb is to remember that while non-dairy alternatives may be better for the environment, they might not match the nutritional properties of animal milk, especially in terms of protein. Dairy is said to have 8g of protein in one serving, which is slightly more than what is found in a hard-boiled egg.
However, there are other nutritional considerations like sugar, carbohydrates, potassium and calcium to consider when selecting the milk that’s right for you, and that’s a decision for you and your GP or dietitian.
Notably, research has shown that pea and soy milk have good amounts of potassium, and almost all naturally unsweetened, non-dairy milk has significantly lower sugar levels than cow’s milk.
As you go on the milk your non-dairy journey, try to look for an alternative that is transparent about its ingredients, such that it does not include much or any sweeteners, additives, or thickeners, and has nutritional value that is important to you, within your budget.