With rising rates of lactose intolerance and an increase in sustainability concerns around the world, plant-based milk substitutes are gaining popularity. A study conducted at Oxford University found that switching to a vegan diet lowers “food’s emissions by up to 73% depending on where you live” (Poore and Nemecek, 2018).
But, you might be wondering, does plant-based milk’s place in popular culture have merit? Are these nut, soy, and legume “milks” actually more sustainable than their dairy counterparts?
The short answer is yes, and here’s why.
Unfortunately, plant-based milk alternatives are not completely free of an ecological footprint. However, overall the carbon footprint for plant-based milk is less damaging than that of the dairy industry.
Almond milk production is known for its high water usage, and it requires a significant amount of pesticides to produce it. However, in comparison to dairy milk, plant-based milk wins the sustainability battle. In terms of water usage, dairy milk requires 628 liters of water to produce 1 liter of milk. Plant-based milk water usage is minimal by contrast: almond requires 371 L, rice requires 270 L, oat requires 48 L, and soy requires 24 L (Farley, 2019).
In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, dairy milk soars high above all plant-based alternatives at 3.2 kg compared to the highest plant-based emissions of rice milk at 1.2 kg (Farley, 2019). These lower values mean that plant-based milk alternatives are a more sustainable choice in the long run.
While sustainability focuses on the longevity of our world, many people desire to make changes to our current system now. Yet, many are limited by their economic circumstances.
My status as a college student limits my ability to live a sustainable lifestyle. I have spent many minutes staring at the shelves in a grocery aisle doing mental calculations of what I can afford on a college budget. That alone is stressful, but add the desire to be sustainable and humane? It is near impossible.
Plant-based milk alternatives are more expensive, but my consumer dollar is not the only aspect of the food economy. It is bigger than just me. So it begs the question, are the sustainable benefits of plant-based milk worth the economic difficulties?
Yes. Economically, plant-based milk is good for the overall world economy because it is not country-specific. It allows for countries to trade and share natural resources. Oatly, for example, is a Swedish oat milk brand that grew so popular in New York that the city experienced a temporary oat milk shortage while Oatly increased their supply.
Many individuals desire to switch to a plant-based diet due to the rising awareness of animal cruelty and the growing popularity of veganism and vegetarianism. Moving away from the dairy industry allows people to rest easy knowing they have made an ethical choice.
However, it is important to consider the nutritional impact of this decision. Plant-based milk is not as nutritionally complete as bovine milk, but each non-dairy alternative has some specific nutritional benefits.
Generally, plant-based milk is higher in carbohydrates than dairy milk. Soy milk is the most comparable to dairy milk in terms of protein content. Almond milk has the lowest caloric value of any milk, dairy or plant-based. Rice milk is a good alternative for those who desire to refrain from dairy but have nut or soy allergies.
We must also be mindful of the added ingredients in most plant-based alternatives. Many non-dairy milk alternatives are fortified with extra vitamins and minerals that wouldn’t usually be in the product.
Nutritionally, plant-based milk alternatives are not a perfect substitute for milk. In fact, they are so different that I agree with the dairy farmers in thinking that plant-based milk should perhaps go by another name. They are not nutritionally equivalent and therefore cannot claim to satisfy the same human needs.
In an ideal world, we would be able to find a plant-based alternative that possesses a complete nutritional profile, contains ingredients that no one is allergic to, and is produced in humane conditions for a living wage.
However, we do not live in a perfect world. We live in a society where we must give and take, and make the best choices with the information we have. But ultimately, the fate of the American food system lies in our hands––the hands of the consumer. Without demand, corporations will not be able to continue their business.
If the average American made the switch to a plant-based milk alternative, our food system could move towards a more sustainable future ethically, economically, and environmentally.
Farley, Amy. “Exclusive: Chobani’s Empire Was Built on Greek Yogurt. Here’s Why Its next Move Is Oat Milks.” Fast Company, Fast Company, 18 Nov. 2019, www.fastcompany.com/90429873/exclusive-chobanis-empire-was-built-on-greek-yogurt-heres-why-its-next-move-is-oat-milks. Accessed 9 Dec. 2019.
Poore, J., and T. Nemecek. “Reducing Food’s Environmental Impacts through Producers and Consumers.” Science, vol. 360, no. 6392, 31 May 2018, pp. 987–992, science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6392/987.full, 10.1126/science.aaq0216.
Wiley, Andrea S.. Re-imagining Milk: Cultural and Biological Perspectives. United Kingdom, Taylor & Francis, 2015.
About the author
Grace Bellman, Emory University BSc ‘21, NYU DPT’24
Grace is a senior at Emory University studying Anthropology & Human Biology, and she will be attending New York University next year to study Physical Therapy. Grace is also a NSCF Certified Personal Trainer and she is passionate about helping others improve their fitness and wellness knowledge. Grace is also committed to promoting a method of preventative healthcare, which allows people to take care of their bodies and prevent injuries before they happen. She is excited to be contributing to The Fit Atlanta blog and working as Marketing intern this semester.
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