In recent years, supermarket shelves have branched out their milk offerings from the standard three lid colour variants of cow’s milk to a plethora of nut milks, lactose-free options and vegan milk alternatives.
The public aren’t just turning their back on dairy milks for their health benefits (there’s growing concern around potential contaminants in cow’s milk) and allergy avoidances, but also for environmental reasons.
With so many choices of dairy-free milk out there, it can be difficult to find the right one for you – and as ever, we encourage informed purchase decisions; so hopefully this guide can help you achieve just that.
All milk alternatives are better for the environment than dairy milks, but there are other factors that need to be considered, and not all vegan milks are created equal…
Which Vegan Milk is Best for the Environment?
Those who have subscribed to a vegan diet for a while we will undoubtedly long have been lauding the environmental benefits of dairy-free milks, but there’s variance within the options available.
It is well known that vegan milk alternatives are less intensive on the environment around them than their dairy counterparts, but what isn’t as freely discussed is the fact that many types of vegan milks still do have a negative impact on the environment.
Let’s take a look at the environmental impact of some of the most popular dairy-free milks.
Almond Milk is the Most Water-Intensive Vegan Milk, and its Production is Causing Bee Populations to Decline
Almond milk is one of the most popular dairy-free milks, well regarded for its nutty taste and smooth texture.
It’s packed with calcium, Vitamin D and Vitamin E, but is made in a way that’s not the most eco-friendly.
Almond milk is made by blending the nuts with water and straining the liquid to remove any solid parts, and whilst the nuts themselves don’t require a particularly high amount of water to grow, they take a long time to reach reproductive maturity.
This means that when all is added up, the most conservative of estimates is that it takes 5 litres of water to grow a single almond – so 1 glass of almond milk requires over 74 litres of water to blend and create.
What’s more, there’s now evidence of a correlation between the blossoming almond milk industry and record levels of commercial bee deaths.
Where commercial hives have traditionally been used to produce honey, they’re now often rented out to almond milk producers: but the monoculture they’re making in the ecosystems across almond farms is causing waves of deaths across the hives in the numbers never before seen.
All in all, at present, the cultivation and creation of almond milk seems to have an environmental impact that may even rival its dairy counterparts.
Soy Milk is Grown As a ‘Monocrop’ using Artificial Fertilisers which Harm the Environment
Soy milk has an almost like-for-like nutritional profile to cow’s milk but is made with either soybeans or soy protein isolate and water, sometimes with added thickeners and/or vegetable oils to improve its consistency.
It’s mild and creamy, and there are numerous flavoured options available from a variety of brands.
Soy is one of the most affordable milk alternatives and is the ideal dairy-free option for anyone with a nut allergy, for whom most of the choices may not be suitable. It’s also a complete protein, which isn’t common in plant-based ingredients.
Soy milk is primarily produced in the US, but the soil in most of the country isn’t of the right profile to grow soybeans.
This means that the quality of the soil combined with artificial nutrients intended to improve its character tent to attract pests, and thus, pesticides are often used.
Such monocultures (that is, growing the same crop repeatedly on the same land) cause repeated nutrients to drain from the land and further harms the ecosystem in and around it.
One of the most popular fertilisers used on monoculture land is phosphorous, which has been proven to create ‘dead zones’ of oxygen and crops.
As if that wasn’t enough, soy cultivation and production has been identified as a major driver of deforestation in the Amazon, and over 94% of all soybeans are grown as GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) – so are manmade.
Rice Milk Production Produces High Quantities of Greenhouse Emissions
Rice milk is another ideal dairy-free milk alternative for anyone with a nut allergy or sensitivity and is the least allergenic of any vegan milk option.
It’s mild in taste but naturally sweet enough that it can be drunk alone, even without added flavouring.
Rice milk, like almond milk, too requires quite a lot of water for its production, as it’s made with milled brown or white rice and water, and of course, is grown in water.
It takes somewhere around 4,000 litres of water to produce just 1kg of rice, and lots of pesticides are used in the crop’s growth – it’s estimated that Asian rice growers use a huge 13% of pesticides worldwide!
It’s been no secret that rice farming contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, as the field emit methane.
However, recent studies conclude that the problem may be worse than first thought and that they could also be producing nitrous oxide, which is harmful to the environment.
Studies in Asian rice fields are ongoing, but for now, the more eco-conscious consumer may wish to opt for another milk alternative.
Coconut Milk Travels Long Distances from Plantations in Asia which Often Have Poor Working Conditions
You’ll already know that Britain doesn’t really have the ideal climate for growing coconuts, but coconut milk has long been widely available here thanks to world food stores.
Coconut milk is made from the white flesh of coconuts and is sweet and nutty – although doesn’t taste as ‘coconut-y’ as you may expect it to! Thickened versions are often used in cooking.
However, because of coconut’s milk far-flung origins, coconuts and their by-products; including of course coconut milk; is flown into the UK.
Food transportation is already the fastest growing greenhouse gas emission industry, and coconuts are a growing contributor to the problem as milks, waters, sugars and even coconut flour grow in popularity.
Coconuts are also often grown as a monoculture (which we already know is poor for local eco-systems) and there’s evidence to suggest deforestation is occurring as plucky producers aim to grow more of them.
There is also a human cost to consider when choosing coconut milk – and that’s worker exploitation.
Many of the people involved in the growth and harvest of coconuts are underpaid, overworked, and expected to work in unhygienic and unsafe conditions.
Oat Milk Has Low Emissions, Uses Less Land and Water than Other Vegan Milks
Oat milk is naturally sweet and quite mild in flavour but can also be quite thin so is often thickened up with oils and other additives (both natural and synthetic, depending on the brand you’re buying).
Its nutritional profile contains a similar number of calories to cow’s milk, but about half of the protein and double the carbs.
Oats take far less water to produce compared to almond and rice milk. Only soy milk consumes less water than oat milk.
However, oat milk emits less emissions than soy milk.
Oats are also grown locally in both UK and Europe, meaning that they don’t have to travel great distances and therefore use up less fossil fuels.
Balancing all environmental aspects, oat milk is undeniably the most environmentally friendly of all the vegan milk choices.
Even more environmentally-friendly again is Nutribuddy’s Eco-PlantMilk, a powdered oat milk.
By coming in powdered form, this milk has a vastly larger shelf-life than regular plant milks, meaning less food wastage.
Another benefit of being a powder is that the milk takes up a lot less space and so less transportation is needed.
Imagine how much more space hundreds of cartons of liquid milk would take up than the equivalent amount of milk in powder form!
The Brands That Sell Plant-Based Milks Are Important too. Some are more Environmentally-Conscious than Others
As much as we’d love all brands selling vegan products to follow cruelty-free business practices throughout their working lives, sadly, this isn’t always the case.
Many, even if vegan themselves, are owned by animal-testing parent companies or have investments in other unethical businesses.
Oat milk and oat by-product brand Oatly are the most recent vegan milk company to hit headlines with controversy as they received $200 million investment from equity firm Blackstone, who are alleged to be involved in Amazon deforestation projects and have donated hefty sums to Donald Trump and the Republican Party in the US.
There are new vegan brands entering the market all the time so don’t be afraid to shop around and find a product – and company – that really works for you.
Nutribuddy sell 100% vegan products and are constantly sourcing more ethical packaging. In 2020 Nutribuddy scrapped all plastic scoops to instead sell reusable stainless-steel scoops which last a lifetime.
But What About Packaging Your Vegan Milk is In?
Once upon a time, milk packaging was dominated by reusable and recyclable glass bottles but sadly, this is no longer the norm.
Milk of all types is now mainly sold in carton packaging, and the most popular form of this is Tetra Pak.
Despite being covered in claims relating to recyclability and sustainability, Tetra Paks aren’t as green as they may first seem.
Most of the components in Tetra Paks are downcycled rather than recycled, but regardless, most are incinerated anyway – with over 30% of Scandinavia’s Tetra Pak cartons being wasted.
There are better options available, however.
Glass bottle milk delivery is still available in some areas of the UK, from both nationwide and local delivery businesses, albeit it can be a little more expensive than standard convenience purchased.
Nutribuddy sell powdered oat milk in resealable pouches that can be reused but are very small and take up very small amounts of space in landfill (and are made in a way that uses little water).
Some brands offer vegan milks in recyclable or even recycled plastic bottles – but read the details on the label to be sure that it’s as sustainable as it appears.
Which Vegan Milk has the Best Nutritional Profile?
The exact nutritional profile of a vegan milk is dependent on the brand that produces it and their methods, but there are some great nutritional benefits to be had from turning to plant-based milk alternatives – so each may be of benefit to an individual’s diet in a different way.
Coconut milk, while naturally in higher in fat than its plant-based counterparts, is linked to heart health benefits.
Soy milk is high in protein and often fortified to replicate the nutritional value of cow’s milk, so it makes a great true alternative.
Oats are one of the most nutritional ingredients in the world, so oat milk is perhaps the most nutritious vegan milk.
It’s high in total fibre and Beta-glucan, and studies show it can reduce cholesterol absorption, lower blood sugar and increase feelings of fullness.
Which Vegan Milk has the Least Side Effects?
Whilst those following a dairy- or lactose- free diet may need to consume vegan milks as a dairy alternative, there are still dietary concerns to consider in picking the right one.
Soy and nuts are allergens, so anyone with allergies or sensitivities to those should avoid their milks.
Soy milk should be avoided by those on a low FODMAP diet, as it can cause bloating and discomfort, and similarly, while not advised against, coconut milk consumption should be limited by those on the same.
Oat milk should be avoided by those gluten-free or with a gluten intolerance, unless produced from completely gluten-free oats.
Nutribuddy’s Eco-PlantMilk, comprised of oats, uses guaranteed gluten-free oats, making it allergen-free.
Which Vegan Milk Tastes the Best?
Taste is subjective! While there are lots of dairy-free vegan milks on the market with added flavourings, each too has its own natural taste that may make it a favourite or a foe depending on the person drinking it.
Oat milk is very mild and smooth, hemp milk is often described as ‘earthy’, and almond milk has a nutty flavour. Coconut milk is sweet but doesn’t taste of the artificial coconut flavour Western appetites are so used to, and rice milk doesn’t hold the flavour of rice at all but can be construed as quite watery.
Your best option to find the vegan milk that tastes the best to you? Try them all!
No matter which plant-based milk you opt for, you’ll be doing a better service to the planet than choosing cow’s milk – but that’s not to say your environmental and ethical duty ends there.
Crops harvested need to be done so in an eco-friendly manner by farming staff who are fairly paid and treated, and no animals should be harmed or exploited in their production if these milks are ever to be truly classified as ‘vegan’.
Thankfully there is now more choice than ever of dairy-free milk alternatives and we’re all able to make informed purchase decisions on what we buy to eat and drink.
There’s some great – and delicious! – vegan milks out there, and now’s the time to embrace this plant-based creamy new world.