With so many non-dairy milk options, it can be difficult to know which one to choose. But before comparing the pros and cons of different types of non-dairy milk alternatives, remember that moving away from dairy is the most important step. According to a 2018 study, producing a glass of dairy milk results in almost 3x more greenhouse gas emissions than any type of non-dairy milk. In addition, It consumes 9x more land than any of the milk alternatives. Remember that reducing or ditching dairy is the most important thing.
I have graded each plant milk type below out of 10. But remember, I have zero expertise in this field apart from being an avid drinker and conscious consumer. I’ve based my decision on the taste, texture and environmental impact of its key ingredient. Let’s get into it:
Almond milk was one of the first mainstream milk alternatives that helped create the shift away from dairy. I started on almond milk due to the lower calorie content a few years ago, but I’ve always found the stuff too watery for my liking. With the rise of more sustainable milk alternatives, almond milk’s popularity has begun to dwindle. This may be a good thing as almonds are complete water guzzlers. Industrial almond production may be causing a decline in bee populations which are used to pollinate almond trees. Beekeepers attribute the high mortality rate to pesticide exposure, diseases from parasites and habitat loss.
Cashews have a moderate carbon footprint and use less water to grow than almonds. They also make for creamier milk with a thicker texture, close to full cream (whole) milk. However, Human Rights Watch uncovered a drug treatment centre using patients for forced labour to shell cashews in Vietnam, which is the world’s largest producer of cashews. As always, opt for fair trade cashew milk and other cashew products.
If you’re a coconut person, coconut milk can easily become a favourite. It’s divinely tropical flavour can improve many dishes and drinks. Meanwhile, coconut milk’s naturally-high fat content is satiating and delicious. Unsweetened coconut milk (the one in the carton, not the can) often has a similar energy profile to dairy milk. Ethically-speaking, coconut milk can be a huge cause for concern. Monkeys are often exploited to pick coconuts in developing countries. In plantations that don’t use monkeys, workers are often underpaid for the often dangerous work of harvesting coconuts. Always ensure you purchase fair trade coconut products to avoid supporting exploitation. And, of course, look for brands that don’t use monkeys for harvest.
Hazelnuts are a stellar nut choice when considering the environment. Hazelnut trees are hardy plants that help prevent erosion while leeching little nitrogen from the soil. Massive root systems allow these plants to avoid succumbing to short term droughts that would adversely affect many other crops. Hazelnuts trees also sequester more carbon than compared to annual crops. And they’re also pollinated by the wind rather than commercial honeybees. Hazelnuts are included in the UTZ certification program. This organisation certifies brands for sustainable farming of coffee, tea, cocoa and hazelnuts and ethical production. Check for the UTZ symbol when buying hazelnut milk and other fair trade certifications.
Hemp is a new sustainable favourite and for many good reasons. Every part of the hemp plant is useful which limits waste. Hemp plants also absorb more CO2 per hectare than any other crop. Meanwhile, many varieties of hemp are naturally resistant to insects and, therefore, don’t require pesticides. Hemp milk has a deliciously nutty flavour and creamy texture which makes it a delicious addition to food and beverages. It’s also a great source of omega fatty acids, fibre and is naturally lower in sugar than dairy milk.
According to an LCA study that Oatly conducted in Sweden, the production of its oat milk results in 80% lower carbon emissions and 60% less energy use compared to cow’s milk. Oats are a low-input crop and require fewer resources to grow and produce; they also require much less water to grow than almonds and don’t require shipping from tropical areas. Oats are generally grown in cooler regions and aren’t associated with deforestation in developing countries. Meanwhile, more than half of the oats currently grown are fed to animals. Therefore, if more people switch to plant-based meals and milk, there is already plenty to go around!
This is another yummy nut milk. The texture lies somewhere between watery almond milk and the creaminess of cashew milk. Macadamia nuts have a high water footprint but a relatively low carbon footprint. Also, macadamia nut trees can live for over 100 years, throughout which time they are sequestering carbon from the atmosphere.
Pea milk could do with some brainstorming for a new, more appetizing name. Luckily, it’s a super sustainable milk choice. Peas can often grow without irrigation and naturally fix nitrogen levels in the soil thanks to their legume status. Growing peas also uses 6x less water than almonds. The texture of pea milk is quite unique and leaves a lot to be desired, especially in something like tea or coffee. It’s best left for smoothies and cooking where the milk isn’t a star ingredient.
Rice has a heavy carbon footprint. Estimates suggest ~2% of human-induced global warming is attributed to rice farming. Rice paddies produce ~12% of total methane emissions. To provide context, landfills produce ~20%. Commercial farms are often heavy-handed with conventional fertilizers. These chemicals run off and wreak havoc on waterways. But this humble grain is the staple food of billions of people. Therefore, it’s bound to have a big environmental impact. Rice milk has an average taste and texture. This crop already has a large environmental footprint and is responsible for vast monocultures so perhaps consider trying another sustainable milk option.
The OG plant-based milk, soy milk was around long before it became trendy. Soy milk has a nutrition similar profile to dairy milk and naturally contains protein. It has a “love it or hate it” taste which I personally think is delicious in coffee. Soy gets a bad wrap when it comes to sustainability. Each year, large swathes of rainforest are cut down for soy plantations. These crops are often are genetically modified and doused in pesticides too. However, just 7% of the world’s soy production is actually consumed by humans. The remainder is fed to a variety of farmed animals including fish. Ew. Opt for organic and know that you’re cutting your carbon footprint by not drinking milk that comes from a cow that’s likely eating soybeans to produce it.
So, which non-dairy milk is the most sustainable?
It’s tough to say which non-dairy milk is the most sustainable. That is to say, each has pros and cons for its environmental impact. Meanwhile, all are great options compared to dairy. But in my unexpert opinion, I’d say hemp is the most sustainable non-dairy milk. Not only does it offer healthy fats and protein to the drinker, but hemp trees sequester more carbon than any other plant. And of course, you can skip the carton and make your own to be super sustainable.
Eco Action Step:
Your eco action step for this week is to try a non-dairy milk alternative. If you’re a fan of cows milk, try something creamy with a subtle flavour like oat or almond milk. So jump out of your comfort zone and try a few varieties. If you find one you’re not a fan of, use it in smoothies or baking, something that will cover up the flavour, to stop it from going to waste. If you’re already a plant milk convert, let me know which non-dairy milk is your favourite flavour on Instagram!