Got Plant Milk?

Updated: Nov 30, 2019

Which non-dairy milk alternative is the best?


The dairy industry is one of the leading contributors to water consumption and GreenHouse gas emissions. Sales of dairy milk have gone down by 6% and sales of plant milk have risen to 9%, making plant milk 13% of the ‘milk’ market. Here are a few statistics about water consumption for dairy products:

  • 1 cup of milk requires 48 gallons

  • 1 cup of yogurt requires 35 gallons

  • 1 scoop of ice cream requires 42 gallons

  • 2 slices of cheese require 50 gallons

  • 1 cup of Greek yogurt requires 90 gallons

  • 1 stick of butter requires 109 gallons

Switching to plant based milk is an easy lifestyle change that can have a big long-term impact on the environment, but not all plant milks are equally sustainable. Almond and soy milk are arguably the most common alternatives, but in fact there are some other options that are less known that may actually have even less of an environmental impact.



This is our ranking based on environmental impacts:

  1. Pea Protein // Hemp

  2. Oat

  3. Coconut // Hazelnut

  4. Cashew // Macadamia

  5. Rice

  6. Almond

  7. Soy

Here’s why...


Pea protein:

Pros:

  • Peas can often be grow without irrigation

  • Peas are also legumes and therefore fix nitrogen which reduces the need for artificial fertilizers

  • Growing peas requires up to 6x less water than almonds

  • Pea protein milk has a much smaller carbon footprint than dairy

  • The company Ripple uses PCR (Post-consumer recycled) plastic in its bottles


Hemp:

Pros:

  • Hemp is durable, so it requires few pesticides to produce

  • Hemp absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere

  • The whole hemp plant is usable, so there is low waste production


Oat:

Pros:

  • Oats require a lot less water to grow than other options (it takes 6x as much water to grow almonds than oats)

  • Oats use 80% less land than other plants use to produce milk alternatives

  • Oat milk produces 80% less GHG emissions than to cow’s milk

Cons:

  • Many oats used for oat milk are sprayed with pesticides, which contributes to dead zones and it detrimental to human health

  • Pro tip: Make sure to purchase organic if you want to stick with oat milk


Hazelnut:

Pros:

  • Hazelnuts can tolerate poor soil

  • Hazelnut trees sequester carbon and prevent erosion with their extensive roots

Cons:

  • Over 60% of the world’s hazelnuts come from Turkey which has issues with child labor


Coconut:

Pros:

  • Coconut trees are carbon sinks, which means that they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere

  • Rainwater can be a main source of water rather than reserved water as they are mostly grown in tropical areas with a large amount of rainfall

Cons:

  • Coconuts have to be imported from tropical locations where they are grown, contributing to carbon emissions from transportation

  • High demand for coconuts has resulted in monoculture farming, which reduces biodiversity of the habitat


Cashew:

Pros:

  • Cashews are commonly grown in non-drought suffering areas, so water consumption is better in comparison to almonds

Cons:

  • Cashew production requires a lot of manual labor and many places around the world that produce a large portion of cashews have issues with fair labor


Macadamia:

Pros:

  • Macadamia nuts don’t require as much water

Cons:

  • Macadamia nuts come from Australia, requiring a lot of transportation which thus has a big impact on carbon emissions


Rice:

Pros:

  • There are new varieties of rice farming that are more sustainable sustainable

Cons:

  • Rice requires lots of water to grow

  • Many modern varieties are genetically modified

  • There is risk of arsenic contamination in rice paddies


Almond:

Pros:

  • Almonds use less water and land to produce than dairy milk

  • Almonds have a lower carbon footprint than dairy milk

Cons:

  • Although less than milk, almonds require a significant amount of water which is important as about 80% of almonds are grown in California, which has recently suffered extreme droughts

  • To grow 1 California almond, the average water footprint is 3.2 gallons per almond


Soy:

Pros

  • Soybeans require 1/10 the amount of water required to produce almonds

  • Soybeans are legumes and therefore fix nitrogen in soils, which reduces the necessity for nitrogen fertilizers

Cons

  • Soy production requires large areas of land to be produced (A large portion of deforestation in the Amazon is for soybean production!)

  • Soy has been genetically modified to endure heavy herbicide usage

  • While soybeans don’t require nitrogen fertilizers, they are often grown using phosphorus fertilizers, which creates low oxygen dead zones in water systems when they runoff

  • Pro tip: If you think soy is a viable alternative to traditional milk in your diet, consider purchasing organic and non-GMO brands produced in the United States (not the Amazon!)


In addition to choosing your milk type, try to be conscious about the packaging it comes in.

  • PCR/PET #1 plastic bottles are completely recyclable (look for the recycling triangle with the number 1)

  • Milk cartons are made of cardboard, but they also have 20% plastic and are not compostable and often hard to recycle.

Some additional notes:


The bottom line: Choosing which plant milk to drink can be a process, but all plant milks are more sustainable than dairy milk. Be open to trying new things and see which one works best for you! As you are shopping, keep in mind these facts about water usage, where the milk is sourced from, if it’s organic or non-GMO.



If you are interested in furthering your reading or comparing the health benefits of each milk, here are some more articles on plant milk production:

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