4 Best Plant Based Milk Alternatives
Updated: May 17
Relying less on foods that are derived from animals is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint. Did you know that there is a big difference between the different kinds of plant milk? Let's take a closer look. To do this properly, we need to know how many variables are taking into account when considering environmental footprint.
There are not only greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and land use but also things like chemical runoff and soil degradation, have to be considered for each stage of production of the crops required for these kinds of plant milk. This is the entire process including growing the raw ingredients to processing them into milk and transportation to the consumer. And there are also things like how much waste is produced due to leftover pulp and whether or not this is reuse which is very hard to find any information on and varies from brand to brand. As different brands use different processing methods to produce the plant milk, it is very hard to fairly compare the types of milk on other properties than CO2 emission, water use, and land use so, for now, we have to focus on these properties to compare the different types.
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Cow milk is not all bad, nowadays, agriculture is much more efficient due to better breeding practices. The planetary footprint of individual cows has reduced up to 50% over the past 5 decades. This sounds great but the demand for dairy has not reduced over the last 5 decades. In fact, the demand for dairy has grown over 500% in the same time frame.
So, how much is the CO2 emission for dairy?
Land use for dairy is extremely high as not only do the cows themselves need land area to live. They also need food and their food needs to be produced somewhere which also requires space. Their food needs to be processed and transported to the farm which again increases the CO2 emission for dairy.
So, how does this data compare to plant-based milk?
Soy milk has been the alternative milk that has been around the longest. It originates from Asia but now can be found all over the world as it is mostly required as animal food. Soy is an awesome crop because they are legumes meaning they can fix nitrogen in the soil reducing the requirement for nitrogen fertilizers.
The big downside of soybean production is that it is mainly grown in monocropped systems, this means that year in and year out the same crop is grown on the same land, and while they might not require as much nitrogen fertilizer because of what I just mentioned, they do use phosphorus fertilizers. This fertilizer is connected to chemical runoff that creates dead zones. A dead zone is an area of water with little to no oxygen, where fish and other marine life cannot survive. To avoid further growth of these dead zones farming practices need to change by either regulating fertilizers, crop rotation, or lowering the demand for soy by consuming fewer animal products.
So overall soy is a great alternative to animal milk but the fertilizer requirement should be taken into consideration so when choosing soy opt to go for organic soy.
Oat milk is my go-to drink for a milk substitute. It has similar properties to soy when considering land use and greenhouse gas emission with a slightly increased water requirement.
Also, oat milk is not perfect as research has shown oats are sometimes contaminated with glyphosate which is the active ingredient of Roundup. To avoid this, I choose organic oat milk.
Almond milk is the only nut milk on this list. It has awesome health benefits and is increasingly in demand.
As you can see in the graph, almond milk has a lower carbon footprint compared to other plant milks like soy and oats but there is one big downside of almond milk and that is the water requirement. Nuts in general have a very large water footprint compared to other plants. This is a big problem where 80% of all the almonds worldwide are produced, California. California has serious drought issues which is a problem when you have grown a crop that requires about 12 liter of water to produce 1 little almond.
So even though almond milk is a very nutritious drink, I avoid almond milk since there is usually only 2% of almonds in a carton. This means that there are about 3 almonds in a carton of almond milk and the water requirement is extremely high.
Rice milk is the last plant milk we will be discussing. Looking at the graph, rice is very efficient in land use and has only slightly higher CO2 emissions compared to other plant-based milk.
The big problem with rice milk is the water requirement. Rice production requires a lot of water as we all have seen the rice fields that are completely covered with water. Rice plants like the have wet feet for production but this comes at a trade-off. Bacteria breeding in the rice field release methane into the atmosphere. Which is a much worse greenhouse gas compared to CO2. Methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide. The methane production together with the high water demand is why I avoid rice milk.
I know there are more kinds of plant milk out there like coconut milk, hemp milk, pea milk, and other nut milk but I could not find any research data on these types of milk. But, no matter which plant-based milk you drink, you can cut out an entire chunk of the process that eats up resources and produces greenhouse gases by making your own plant milk at home, in a blender.